Aside from dropping the “the” in the title of The Adding Machine — Elmer Rice’s 1923 assimilation of German expressionism — and aside from substituting one new sequence, composer-co-librettist Joshua Schmidt and co-librettist Jason Loewith have been commendably true to the source material for their new chamber musical, Adding Machine. The faithfulness will fill some Minetta Lane patrons with awe, especially as presented in a David Cromer production so meticulously designed to echo the period that it often resembles a film F. W. Nosferatu Murnau might have shot or a 1920’s industrial setting that Lewis Hine could have photographed.
Other patrons might be less inclined to succumb to its dark charm — particularly those wandering in unaware of the source material’s gloomy nature as an allegory of man-as-cog-in-a-wheel. (See a late-in-play Peter Flaherty projection for literal substantiation.) Worse, patrons might wonder about the relevance of Rice’s damning charge to today’s society where slavish employee loyalty is no longer a revered notion. Moreover, ticket buyers may show resistance to Schmidt’s deliberately a-melodic, often jarringly contrapuntal score beautifully and chillingly played by an off-stage trio. It sometimes hits the ear like something Gian Carlo Menotti might have thought up for his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1954 opera, The Consul.
In both play and musical, Mr. Zero (Joel Hatch) is hoping to mollify nagging Mrs. Zero (Cyrilla Baer) by being handed a raise on the 25th anniversary of joining his company’s nose-to-the-grindstone ranks. There, where he works toting up figures alongside longtime associate and sometime romantic object Daisy (Amy Warren), he doesn’t get the satisfaction he’s expecting. Instead, he’s fired by his boss (Jeff Still), who explains that as an economic expedient Mr. Zero and colleagues are being replaced with adding machines. The distressing development puts a crimp in a gathering Mrs. Zero arranges that evening for gossipy and testy friends Mr. One (Daniel Marcus), Mrs. One (Niffer Clarke), Mr. Two (Roger E. DeWitt) and Mrs. Two (Adinah Alexander). Before you can say “robotic Mr. Zero is himself just another adding machine,” the poor man’s story continues to unfold and includes a murder, imprisonment, a pursuit through the Elysian Fields, a trip to hell, and a return to earth that comes with a peculiar catch.
What can be said wholly in the favor of Adding Machine is that whether or not it strikes some audiences as dated, it contains a series of effective sequences that Cromer stages with gravity most of the time but also with occasional lightness. He and composer Schmidt get around to some jailhouse rock when Mr. Zero picks up his narrow prison cell and, while still in it, dances with Mrs. Zero. Almost immediately after, in a celestial bower Takeshi Kata designed prettily, the loose-haired and delicately dressed (by Kristine Knanishu) Daisy arrives. She and then the intense fellow prisoner Shrdlu (Joe Farrell) join Mr. Zero in the production’s most amusing turn. It’s a mini-comic opera inside the larger almost-sung-through opera.
In keeping with the German expressionism movement to which Rice was the first American playwright paying homage — and at the same time radically departing from his successful earlier work — director Cromer makes certain the cast looks convincingly like overfed-sedentary specimens of the dull-witted bourgeoisie. He’s aided by costumer Knanishu, as well as by lighting designer Keith Parham, who at one dramatic moment lights the actors from below so their faces resemble funhouse ghouls. While insuring that the serious tuner is sung well, Cromer hasn’t pushed for dulcet tones. When the Zeros are meant to behave harshly to each other, actors Hatch and Baer sing harshly, stridently, gruffly. The rest of the cast — all well-trained vocally — follow suit.
One of Rice’s major points is that Mr. Zero is not written to be a sympathetic figure. None of the characters are. They’re adding-machine-like ciphers in a cautionary tale meant to wake observers up to leading more productive lives. To that intention and to their credit, the Adding Machine creators have held fast.