Is there a knowledgeable audience out there for Elmer Rice’s 1923 masterpiece of American Expressionism, “The Adding Machine?” If so, then these bright bulbs should immediately line up to see this austerely beautiful musical treatment by Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith. But the mere fact that this question needs to be asked indicates that David Cromer’s brave production respects the material without making any attempt to update or otherwise mess with its vintage message to make it relevant for contempo auds that might not share Rice’s angst about modern technology.
However wary of machines Americans may have been in Rice’s day, later generations have met the technology that would destroy us, and we love it. While that is essentially what happens to Mr. Zero (in a riveting perf by Joel Hatch), the hapless office drone who loses his job to an adding machine on the 25th anniversary of his servitude, the playwright was writing at a time when it still seemed possible to caution mankind about becoming slaves to their inventions.
Clearly, that moment has passed. So, the challenge of this adaptation — mounted to a score by Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith so eerily apt that it could have been part of the original dramatic blueprint for the 1923 Theater Guild production — is to persuade modern audiences that the piece holds more than a dated caution to wake up and unplug.
The bold choice made by the creatives (initially undertaken at the Next Theater Company in Evanston, Ill.) was to further streamline and stylize the text so that it would play more like a folk tale than a time-rooted period piece. The score strives for the same timeless quality, with its plain lyric line and deceptively simple style of musical composition.
Although the show is not sung through, formal songs combine with musical underscoring and perfectly pitched sound effects to wrap the audience in the relentless pace and repetitive patterns that define Mr. Zero’s world.
Bathed in an industrial-green light (the keen work of Keith Parham), the stripped-down set (by Takeshi Kata) brilliantly reduces this dead-end life to its barest and bleakest essentials.
Here is the cheerless bed shared by Mr. Zero and his nagging wife, Mrs. Zero (Cyrilla Baer, fluent in spousal discontent). Here are the unadorned desks where Mr. Zero and his co-workers hunch in their green eyeshades and black sleeve-protectors, mindlessly recording the numbers so important to their impersonal firm.
Here is the filing spike that Mr. Zero plunges into the heart of his boss when he learns he is fired. Here are the cage-like prison cells where Mr. Zero and his fellow murderer, Shrdlu (teetering on the edge of madness in Joe Farrell’s intense perf) await execution. And here, in the dramatic finale, is the gigantic Mother of all Machines.
If this environment is dehumanizing and its pounding rhythms (the sadistic invention of sound designer Tony Smolenski) an invitation to commit mass suicide, Kristine Knanishu restores some of the characters’ dignity with period costumes that show some individuality.
Of particular charm — and no little amusement — are the increasingly girlish outfits and hairstyles worn by Amy Warren, vocally fearless and personally endearing as Daisy Diana Dorothea Devore, the drab bookkeeper who is Mr. Zero’s soulmate.
Whether singing a doleful fugue to the paralyzing boredom of their workday (“In Numbers”), snapping under the strain of a regimented existence (“Zero’s Confession”), or turning their backs on redemption (“Freedom”) to embrace their bitter destiny (“The Music of the Machine”), the voices are all clear and robust — and in the case of Baer’s Mrs. Zero, sharp enough to cut glass.
But the faces are even more haunting for the robotic lack of expression that allows only periodic flashes of unguarded human emotion. Hatch is particularly adept at this deadpan emotive style, his Mr. Zero so drained of spirit that his facial muscles are unable to register any feeling short of agony.
To Charles (Jeff Still), the celestial messenger who prompts Mr. Zero to throw off his shackles, the dumb sap is so in thrall to conventional morality and conformist thought that he has become the ideal slave to his industrial masters.
In refusing to think or feel for himself, the brain-dead Mr. Zero has become the perfect machine-man for an insentient machine age. But is he us? For all its intellectual wit and visual cleverness, Cromer’s production fails to draw a binding connection between Rice’s industrial age and our own electronic universe — a fatal lapse of imagination that may well allow the play’s anguished message of doom to fall on deaf ears.