Friday, March 26, 2010

Adding Machine scores, but does it add up?

Adding Machine's view of cubeland. Photos by Mark L. Saperstein.

SpeakEasy's new production of Adding Machine offers reviewers a critical dilemma: how to praise the production while damning the play? For the show clearly represents what many consider Boston's most reliable theatre company firing on all cylinders: the cast is among the city's finest, the direction by (Paul Melone) is consistently imaginative, and the design - by Susan Zeeman Rogers (set), Gail Astrid Buckley (costumes), Jeff Adelberg (lighting) and Aaron Mack (sound) is brilliant, beautifully integrated, and often outshines everything and everybody else. It's hard to imagine a better production of this musical being seen in the Hub (and, judging from photographs, SpeakEasy's designs may actually trump those seen in New York).

But then there's the musical itself - or rather its source, The Adding Machine, by Elmer Rice, a piece of expressionist agitprop which was a sensation on Broadway in the 20's. It seems we're awash in expressionist agitprop these days (we just saw a retread of Machinal at the Nora, and Paradise Lost is losing its way currently at the ART), and I'm afraid Adding Machine only reminds us why, exactly, these theatrical elephants long ago found their way to the theatrical elephant graveyard.

This particular pachyderm is styled as a kind of fever dream about capitalism, mechanization and the question of free will - as well as bigotry, numerology, re-incarnation, and a whole bunch of other stuff. As you can tell from that laundry list, it's a mess thematically, but its central problem lies in the fact that source author Elmer Rice decided to design his play as both a cri de coeur against his hero's milieu, and against his hero himself.

Now this is a tall order, dramatically. Shakespeare and Chekhov pulled it off, of course (and if musicals are your point of reference, so did Sondheim) - but the trick to this kind of thing is a subtle, inflected view of both hero and milieu, and how they're tied together. Diatribes against one and then the other don't really work; they merely induce in the audience a form of theatrical whiplash.


But diatribes are very much the order of the day in Adding Machine; the show's hero, "Mr. Zero," (the reliable Brendan McNab, looking both spooked and spooky) is portrayed as addicted to the mysteries of math, yet ground down by mindless routine at both his accounting job (where he labors in a literal trough) and at home (where his suffocating wife and her friends break into choruses of "Kike! Nigger! Wop! Fag!" at their cocktail parties).

As you can see, Rice painted with a broad brush, even for 20's agitprop, but in Adding Machine the musical, the original play's excesses are at least shrink-wrapped in a cool, post-minimalist score (by the talented Joshua Schmidt) that gives everything a strangely ironic edge, and often beguiles in its own metronomic way. Real melody always seems about to break free from Schmidt's harmonic "units," as it were - which neatly conjures a subtle sense of numeric imprisonment much like Mr. Zero's.

Still, Schmidt's tunes can't triumph over Rice's dramaturgy (or his cartoonish politics, with which you get the impression Schmidt and fellow librettist Jason Loewith agree). The pathetic Mr. Zero, always essentially a human adding machine, is replaced by an actual adding machine at work, and he responds, in a frenzy of indignation, by offing his boss. That's pretty much the only time he stakes out anything like a claim to his own humanity, however. Indeed, after the murder, he calmly returns home for dinner (this is one of the play's occasionally acute strokes), and is soon apprehended for the crime, convicted - and executed.

Ah, but his existential journey has only just begun. Rice (and his later librettists) take advantage of Zero's life on death row to tease out some intriguing questions about the troubling issue of free will - another inmate, for instance, is actually comforted by the knowledge he'll be punished forever for his crimes; that's not as worrisome as the moral doubt that would ensue if he weren't. But in the afterlife (brilliantly imagined here by designer Rogers as an iceberg of a shroud, below), it turns out all moral bets are off, and for a brief moment, Adding Machine seems about to come together thematically, and out of thin arctic air, it seems, dramatic stakes briefly materialize.

Is there sex after death? Brendan McNab goes from hero back to Zero in Liz Hayes's eyes in Adding Machine.

They don't last long, however. While roaming these frosty "Elysian Fields," Zero hooks up with Daisy (Liz Hayes), a young woman from work who not-so-secretly carried a torch for him - and even committed suicide to follow him upstairs, as it were. But even this kind of devotion can't shake Zero out of his conventional identity, or his pawn's-eye view of the world. Loving Daisy would require an independence of mind that he just can't muster, and even the suggestion that he rebel against the mystical rule of numbers outrages him. "What kind of dump is this anyway?" he cries in indignation, while the miserable Daisy is left with what may be the best line in the show: "I might as well be alive!"

So it seems that Mr. Zero actually deserved his fate, and even his job - so why did he look so depressed in Act I? But Rice and company aren't done with the flip-flops - in the finale, Zero's soul is put on the assembly line for re-incarnation, and suddenly he once again rages against the machine like a standard-issue romantic hero (even crying "Nooooooooo!" as he meets his doom). At this point, one has to admit that Zero has become little more than a rag doll, to be plopped on one side of the existential dilemma, then the other, at the whim of the playwright. And whatever sympathy we had with him has long since curdled into irritation with his creators, who keep reconfiguring the challenges that life (and death) throw him, only to reveal they're all zero-sum games anyway.

What's frustrating is that there probably is a third way out of the dichotomies of Adding Machine - surely, for instance, Zero's mystical attachment to numbers isn't really the same thing as bigoted convention, as the musical implies. (I think a few independent eccentrics, like say Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman, would disagree with that assessment.) And surely there's a genuine tragedy to be found in his story - of a man so besotted with math that he was fooled into selling his soul to it. But Rice and his adaptors simply don't know how to tell that story.

Sadder still, you get the impression McNab and company would have known how to play that story, if it had been written. Surely they would have known how to sing it. There's not a weak voice in this crowd, but special mention has to go to the warbling of Amelia Broome, Leigh Barrett, and John Bambery. The acting is even more evenly excellent; clearly this will be nominated as one of the best ensembles of the year in the coming awards cycle, but I was particularly taken with not only the leads but the witty inflections of Sean McGuirk and Cheryl McMahon. You'd be well advised to catch all these local pros at the top of their respective games; just don't be surprised if in the end you feel Adding Machine doesn't really add up.