Amidst a cloud of haze and the repeated plunking of a piano key, a nondescript man hunches over his desk, writing feverishly. By the time everyone has found their seats, the monotonous note has become an almost constant noise in the space, mixing in with the audience’s pre-show chatter. One of many powerful images in Geoff Button’s exhilarating staging, this snapshot into Mr. Zero’s life speaks volumes to his current physical and mental state, even before the first note has been sung. Based on Elmer Rice’s 1923 play The Adding Machine, and now on stage at the Den Theatre, Adding Machine: A Musical is a powerfully staged and expressive production bursting with energy.
Adding Machine: A Musical portrays the heartbreaking drudgery of Mr. Zero’s (Patrick Du Laney) inconsequential life. As his name suggests, his aspirations to someday amount to something are unlikely ever to be fulfilled, just like his hope for a promotion after 25 years of work at the same demeaning company. Even his wife, Mrs. Zero (Kelli Harrington), wishes she had married someone with the potential to rise above mediocrity. If some of the symbolism sounds overt, rest assured that Button’s strong direction and Katie Spelman’s mechanical choreography, in tandem with uniformly excellent work from the cast of nine, makes for a thoroughly engaging and nuanced exploration of how routine informs feelings of personal worth, as well as perpetuates issues of race and gender.
While the storyline of Rice’s original piece is still intact in this adaptation, Joshua Schmidt’s music (with book and lyrics by Jason Loewith and Schmidt) adds another exciting and heartbreaking level of expressionism to the entire production. Sung with raw passion by the cast under the music direction of Matt Deitchman, Adding Machine‘s music and score transports audiences into the minds of its characters with mathematical precision. Spelman’s stylized choreography–which includes a beautiful moment where set pieces and actors move like hands on a clock–complements this exactness and helps create a world where efficiency is truly the bottom line.
Over the course of Adding Machine‘s quick, 95-minute running time, audiences are transported from Mr. Zero’s home to his workplace, a jail cell, and even the afterlife. Each space is clearly defined by Lauren Nigiri’s minimal scenic design, as well as the rest of the ensemble (at times, actors embody closet doors and coat racks). Nigiri’s set also includes a towering brick wall with foreboding industrial lamps that glow ominously in the fog. Mike Durst’s colorful lighting–at times referencing the focused, emotive work of costume designer Izumi Inaba–uses the minimally furnished stage as a canvas for expression, sprinkling in some exciting surprises along the way. Important in a space such as The Den’s Heath, each singer’s vocals are well-supported by sound design by Joe Court and Brandon Reed, with some particularly gut-wrenching sound cues at the end of the piece that leave the right balance of cause and effect up to the audience’s imaginations.
When it comes to performances, each actor’s work is as expressive as the production’s dynamic design. Du Laney’s quiet yet impassioned performance as Mr. Zero is just as powerful in moments of silence as it is when he is singing. Harrington’s portrayal of Mrs. Zero–who has the potential to come across as domineering and uncaring–presents a variety of layers, from dutiful love to an eagerness to keep up appearances and a few glimpses of genuine caring. Other standouts in this stellar cast include Andres Enriquez as the eerily similar and utterly smarmy Boss, Charles, and Fixer, Jonah D. Winston’s Mr. One, and Neala Barron as Daisy Devore, the object of Mr. Zero’s pining.
Although this musical is a story concerned with murder, oppression and numbers, Button and his cast find much humor (albeit dark) in the proceedings. While some of this comes from characters’ dry observations about their lots in life, there are also several winning moments of physical comedy, as well. The actors’ caricaturesque portrayal of “angels” in the afterlife is a particularly humorous moment, as Du Laney’s Mr. Zero slowly realizes that even the afterlife can be as stifling as his previous experiences on earth. These touches, along with the episodic nature of the musical’s structure, help to keep viewers unfamiliar with the source material on the edge of their seat, up until the final moments. Adding Machine represents another triumph in The Hypocrites’ ever-growing canon of visually and artistically stimulating productions.
Adding Machine originally premiered in Illinois in 2007 at the Next Theater and was directed by David Cromer, before moving Off-Broadway where it would garner six Lucille Lortel Award nominations and win Outstanding Musical.
The Hyopcrites’ Adding Machine: A Musical is performed at the Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage (1329 N. Milwaukee Ave.) and runs Friday, April 1, through Sunday, May 15. Tickets are $36, with discounts available for students and groups of eight or more. Buy tickets at www.the-hypocrites.com.