Sunday, March 02, 2008

A Dark Machine

"Add1ng Mach1n3" at the Minetta Lane Theatre, February 29, 2008

(Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Based on Elmer Rice's 1923 play, "The Adding Machine" has been adapted into a dark and sometimes compelling musical. Mr. Rice was a prolific writer/producer, whose first Broadway outing was his play "On Trial" from 1914. Given the excesses of the 1920s, this story is a prescient foreshadow of the darkness to come with the Great Depression. His presence on the Great White Way was a relative constant from then until the mid-1960's, not returning again until the Manhattan Theatre Club's "Lovemusik" in 2007.

With this adaptation, it's easy to see his influence on 20th century theatre in the work of experimental theatre artists like Bertolt Brecht and Marc Blitzstein. It has transferred to New York after an acclaimed run at the Next Theatre Company in Chicago. (Is it necessary to announce a spoiler alert for an 85 year old story?)

Jason Loewith (Artistic Director of Next Theater Company) and Joshua Schmidt have adapted Mr. Rice's work into a sung-through musical that totally captures the style of early 20th century musical composition. Harmonic, "hummable" melodies are not to be found for the most part. This tale is a dark indictment on the increasing mechanization of the late Industrial Revolution and its adverse impact on humanity. Mr. Zero (Joel Hatch) is a 25-year company man, working in the bookkeeping department of a large store. His job is to add sales receipts by hand, assisted by Daisy (Amy Warren) who reads each number to him for recording in a large ledger.

The show opens with Mr. and Mrs. Zero (Cyrilla Baer) lying in bed, while she nags, whines and complains about the life she will likely never have, "Something to Be Proud Of." At work, we learn that Mr. Zero and Daisy are secretly (to everyone and each other) in love with each other. They hide their feelings with constant bickering, each longing to escape with the other to a new life, "I'd Rather Watch You."

Beaten and worn by his 25 years of work and marriage, Mr. Zero's only attainable hope is to be promoted on this 25th work anniversary. Instead, he is laid off since the store has purchased new invention, the titular adding machine, to replace most of their bookkeeping staff. In a rage, Mr. Zero kills his boss and is sentenced to death. On death row, his cell-neighbor Shrdlu (Joe Farrell) also awaits execution for killing his mother. Raised in the shame and fear of religion, Shrdlu longs for the retribution of hell for his crime "The Gospel According to Shrdlu." (An interesting side note: this role was originated by Edward G. Robinson in 1923, "...see.") Mrs. Zero arrives on the eve of his execution for a final visit, bringing him his favorite last meal, "Ham and Eggs!" a waltz that leads to a reconciliation of sorts as they say goodbye "Didn't We?"

In death, Mr. Zero finds himself in an unexpectedly "Pleasant Place," the Elysian Fields filled with sunlight, blue skies, water, flowers and greenery. Shrdlu discovers him and tells him fearfully that it will always be like this. Shrdlu cannot cope without the punishment of hell that he longed for and runs away distraught. Daisy appears (in a great Flory-dory confection of organdy pleats and lace) having committed suicide over the loss of Mr. Zero and finally reveals her feelings "Daisy's Confession." Hoping for an eternal after-life of happiness they reprise "I'd Rather Watch You" but Mr. Zero is unable to forgive himself and enjoy their time together. Shrdlu returns, having accepted his fate, "Freedom" but Mr. Zero cannot accept it and flees to the anonymity and safety of The Machine. He spends another 25 years there mastering the adding machine that pushed him toward his own death, only to be told that it's time to return to life. "Souls are recycled. Think about how crowded it would be here otherwise." Fearful, Mr. Zero begs to stay and learns that his soul has been recycled many, many times by The Machine. Each time, he's made choices that prevented his own happiness: as an Egyptian slave building the Great Pyramids, continually the servant refusing to stand for his own dignity and thus, happiness. He struggles against being returned and seeing Daisy lined up for recycling, grabs her hand and runs with her. Are they running away from a new life or toward it? This is the last unanswered question.

As Mr. Zero, Mr. Hatch is appropriately deadpan and beaten. His only emotions are frustration, anger and fear, being most fearful when happiness looms largest. Ms. Baer's Mrs. Zero is a shrill harpy, resentful that her husband's mediocrity has never raised their lives above mere subsistence.

Mr. Farrell's Shrdlu quite successfully relates the pain and sabotage that results from much of organized religion. He literally quakes in his fear and self-reproach. It is a remarkable performance.

I found Ms. Warren's Daisy to be the most successful performance of the evening. This self-doubting, insecure and damaged Daisy literally blossoms in death, reveling in the freedom of after-life. This woman (originally Daisy Diana Dorothea Devore) longs for the beauty and grace invoked by her name and in an awkward and touching display, and nearly achieves it before being abandoned by man who can't choose happiness. Given what we learn of the history of Mr. Zero's soul, it seems she has lived a similar fate over many lives.

Director David Cromer has assembled a talented (though hardly attractive cast - and appropriately so) to play those with lives of "quiet desperation." Even Daisy's version of beauty in death is only a relative improvement, bringing home the harsh realities the human struggle. His stylized staging excellently evokes the darkness of this tale.

Takeshi Kata's sets support the varying emotions of fear and fleeting hope, but Keith Parham's lighting is even dimmer than that of the foxhole in last year's revival of "Journey's End." Though I can understand the design concept behind it, more often than not I felt that I was missing facial expressions in the shadows that cloaked most of the production. Kristine Knanishu's costumes were spot-on to the period. I could almost feel the scratchy wool of the suits worn by the men.

Similar to my recent experience with "The Homecoming," "The Adding Machine" is not a jolly night at the theatre. Rather, it's a provoking contemplation that reflects back on what a modern world could have looked like.

1 comment:

Sarah B. Roberts said...

I saw it last night. I loved "Daisy" and I wish I could hear and see "I'd Rather Watch You" again and again. It was a beautiful moment when she opened the parasol - such a juxtaposition against the darkness of the set.