Joshua Schmidt’s haunting musical adaptation of Elmer Rice’s Expressionist tragedy the “Adding Machine,” currently playing downtown at the Minetta Lane Theatre, is a stunning artistic achievement. Directed by David Cromer with daring style the brilliantly conceived production is simply shattering. While the moody chamber piece may not be for the masses, Cromer’s original staging of the dark tale is nonetheless a bracing heartbreaker that remains true to the source material, while courageously avoiding commercial conceits.
The 1923 classic about the dark side of the American dream (three hours in length) is an odd choice for a musical. The story’s anti hero Mr. Zero (a riveting Joel Hatch) is fired from his dead end job as a bookkeeper on his 25th anniversary with the company, replaced by a cost effective adding machine. In an act of vengeful rage Mr. Zero murders his boss and will travel to the afterlife, where he is given one last chance for romance and redemption. He is a trapped, however, an angry everyman with a fatal flaw – he longs for the safe and fears the unknown.
The creative team has made the brave choice of streamlining the original to a brief 90 minutes, while retaining all the major plot elements including a murder and an execution. The musical plays more like a stylized parable than a period piece and will linger in your consciousness for days, even weeks. I still haven’t forgotten the cumulative effect from the near perfect musical realization of the bleak tale.
The beautifully varied score by Joshua Schmidt, who also wrote the libretto with Jason Loewith, achieves a timeless quality. The music created by three musicians on piano, synthesizer and percussion has a repetitive industrial sound that lures you into Mr. Zero’s world. And while the show is not sung throughout, the evening has an operatic quality combined with eerie sound effects that is mesmerizing.
Mr. Zero’s wife Mrs. Zero (a marvelously abrasive Cyrilla Baer) is a nagging nightmare. The remarkable first scene takes place in their conjugal bed placed upright on the stage. Mrs. Zero sings “Something to Be Proud Of,” a strident unrelenting whine that feels like an aria of complaint. This scene sets the tone and every one that follows is truthful and wonderfully paced filling the evening with many emotionally harrowing moments.
The gifted ensemble is outstanding. What is most memorable is the blank expressions that only occasionally allow emotions to register. Mr. Zero’s explosive confession in defense of his actions during the trial scene is the chilling rant of a bigot with no apparent redeeming qualities that make it all the more spellbindingly terrifying.
Nothing about this musical panders to the sentimentalized commercialism that is rampant on Broadway. “Adding Machine” is a magnificent little masterpiece that stands out as one of the most exceptional productions of the season.
By: Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published in Dan’s Papers
“Adding Machine” opened on February 25, 2008 at the Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane just east of Sixth Avenue. Tickets are available by calling the theatre box office at 212-420-8000 or through HYPERLINK "http://www.ticketmaster.com" www.ticketmaster.com