My sojourn in Boston has given me, not for the first time, the opportunity to see a show that was well-received in a major New York production that I missed. So, while I can't compare Speakeasy's production of Adding Machine: A Musical to the multi-award-winning New York version, I can say that it's a demanding, rewarding, complex, beautiful piece of work. It's graced with a marvelous cast and a rich depth of talent, from the musicians and costumes to the lighting and sound and everything in between.
Basing their work on Elmer Rice's Expressionist play from 1923, creators Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith have accomplished a number of things with Adding Machine: A Musical. One is solving the puzzle of how to put numbers into song with style. Schmidt, a skilled sound designer as well as a composer, sets the tone with the prologue and its precision timing. The cast hammers through a day in the life of a retailer's accounting department circa 1923 with robotic determination but all-too-human frustration.
"In numbers," goes the message, "the mystery of life can be revealed." Full of difficult intervals and polyrhythms, the music crescendos to a nightmarish peak; then, suddenly, all the noise drops away and the focus comes down to two people, a bean-counter and sagging Everyman named Zero (Brendan McNab), and his assistant, the comely but slightly blowsy Daisy.
And then Mr. Zero comes home, where he silently endures the chatter and criticism of his frustrated wife, whose plaint, "I want to go downtown," epitomizes her clotted dissatisfaction with her constricted middle-class life. Amelia Broome delivers the intricately metered quasi-operatic number in spectacular fashion. This is difficult music but she, along with the rest of the cast, makes it look easy throughout. Away from the wife, Zero is relieved: "I dream in figures/They don't ask questions of me." It doesn't hurt that Schmidt and Loewith have crafted Rice's original words into melodies and meters that seem to pulse and rise and fall with the rhythm of thought, even when those thoughts are about the comfort of numbers.
The music doesn't always follow the rhythms of natural speech, however, and that too is fitting. In an Expressionist piece, traditional plot and naturalistic dialogue are often sacrificed so that the characters may express their psychologies more directly, closer to the heart, if less "realistically." And the psychologies of these people are frightfully disturbed. Everything about the production mirrors the psychosocial difficulties of the times, so much like ours, in which "profit is the ultimate goal." New ways of thinking and measuring were replacing the old – symbolized by the adding machine of the title, which, as it happens, is putting Mr. Zero out of a job.
I looked back into history and was surprised to realize that Rice's original play predates both Fritz Lang's classic Expressionist film Metropolis and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, not to mention Sartre's No Exit. Unlike some machine age classics, The Adding Machine has humor, preserved here in a number of scenes, easing the grimness of the tale. But like them, it's no walk in the park. In fact there's not a touch of green anywhere (and no sign of the existence of any children). From the ghastly red and white stripes of the cold opening to the featureless white of the afterlife, nothing has warmth and true meaning, except numbers, which can't love you back. Only in Daisy's blooming name – Daisy Dorothea Devore, in full – is there any promise of life.
But a name isn't enough; brazen violence is the only way Zero can escape his soul-numbing predicament. Two of the other main characters also use extreme measures to break free, including Shrdlu (the intense and golden-voiced John Bambery), a passionate young man Zero meets in prison. A suffocating piety was Shrdlu's own pre-prison prison, and he has thought long and hard about right and wrong, but nothing gets decided here.
On trial for his own crime, Zero cries out in stark melody, "I'm like anyone else/What would you do?" There's no adequate answer, and he gets none. Yet when confronted with something that looks like salvation, and even love, he's overcome by disgust and rejects the existential "freedom" on offer and its embodiment in love in the person of Daisy (the wonderful Liz Hayes, who, incidentally, does a fabulous working-class Barbra Streisand).
In 1984, Orwell's lovers Winston and Julia are doomed by the police state; but Rice's Zero and Daisy get clobbered by Zero's own misguided conscience. In a way it's even more sad. Frustration seems to await no matter what, and in the powerful climactic scene, a lurid assembly line of souls offers, again, no way out.
Somehow, through the magic of theater, this bleak and barren story becomes an astonishingly refreshing and rewarding experience. Beautifully acted and sung, and sensitively directed by Paul Melone, with music brilliantly performed by a band of three led by pianist Steven Bergman, it's a triumph. Don't miss it. It runs through April 10 at the Boston Center for the Arts. Visit the Speakeasy Stage website for tickets, or call the box office at 617-933-8600.
Photos by Mark L. Saperstein.