If the German expressionist drama “Spring Awakening” can be a musical, why not the American expressionist drama “The Adding Machine”? Small but ambitious Next Theater on Chicago’s North Shore delivers a genuinely intriguing “chamber musical” adaptation in which Joshua Schmidt’s rich and varied music enhances the emotional intensity and odd stylistic juxtapositions of Elmer Rice’s 1923 play.
The music here can’t be compared in any way to Duncan Sheik’s vibrant score for Broadway’s “Spring Awakening,” which put contemporary pop into the mouths of 19th century German teenagers; “The Adding Machine” still comes off like a period piece with greatest appeal to an intellectual audience.
Orchestra consists of two pianos and additional percussion. The music is wide-ranging yet consistent. There’s melodrama throughout and the occasional Gershwin-like melody, as well as a rhythmic repetition to the libretto and singing style that brings to mind a Gertrude Stein/Virgil Thomson opera. The variety suits Rice’s play exceptionally well, since it, too, moves freely from straightforward to abstract.
Schmidt’s surprise achievement in “The Adding Machine” — and it’s quite striking — is that the music feels a completely natural part of the work, not the slightest bit tacked on.
Play centers on hapless Mr. Zero (Joel Hatch), stuck in a bad marriage and a rote job calculating numbers. When after 25 years he’s replaced to make way for the titular new technology, Zero promptly kills his boss. Rice then follows him to prison and from there to the Elysian Fields after his execution.
Part socialist rant, part existential contemplation, the play has always been something of an oddity, produced mostly in academic settings. This adaptation, on which Schmidt collaborated with Next a.d. Jason Loewith, puts the blame squarely on Mr. Zero’s shoulders. The possibility of love exists in the affection Zero’s co-worker Miss Devore (Amy Warren) feels for him, but he’s incapable of accepting it. In Hatch’s highly capable, unsentimental performance, this antihero comes off very much as a man who deserves his fate.
Directed with flair and focus by David Cromer (“Orson’s Shadow”), the production looks great, with Matthew York’s angular sets and Keith Parham’s lighting creating the necessary feeling of depth with limited space. Jail scene, in which each prisoner has an individual cell he can carry around with him, presents a terrific combination of theme, whimsy and small-stage practicality.
But the story here remains the score. Schmidt is an accomplished sound designer, and he clearly understands how music can support character and bring out underlying drama. From the opening sequence, in which Mrs. Zero (Cyrilla Baer) contemptuously berates her husband, the music draws us into a world of rich but not sympathetic characters whose passionate inner lives are constantly frustrated by the dreariness of their surroundings.