After 25 years of monotonously crunching numbers in a sunless, cramped office, Mr. Zero, who is expecting a promotion, is flightily dismissed from his dead-end job. Shocked and enraged, he murders his boss.
It sounds like an outlandish headline from any tabloid you’d see checking out at the grocery store, doesn’t it? Sorry to disappoint, but Mr. Zero’s story goes all the way back to the 1923 play by Elmer Rice entitled “The Adding Machine.”
Rice’s play has been adapted into a musical produced by SpeakEasy Stage Company, directed by Paul Melone with original music by Joshua Schmidt and libretto by Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt.
During the opening musical number entitled “Prologue: In Numbers,” only illuminated portion of the stage is the backing curtain that is marked with thick, stark black and red vertical bars and numbers that look as if they have been sprawled by a psychotic inmate in solitary confinement. The initial image not only foreshadows Zero’s fate but also represent his internal madness.
In the first scene, the stage is virtually baron, consisting of just a metal-framed bed and two vacant wooden chairs. Zero arrives home from work, peaked, staring blankly at the floor as his wife attacks him in song form.
Immediately you are uncomfortably thrust into the deteriorating relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Zero, forced to watch their bickering. In “Something To Be Proud Of” Mrs. Zero is pecking at her husband, cruelly stating “I was a fool for marrying you” in a shrill cry. As she gripes, her hand cuts through the air tense at her side up to her cheek demanding a kiss before he leaves for work, and he subserviently complies face unchanging. Her housewife-gone-wild screeching combined with his stoic face looked like an incident of domestic violence just waiting to happen.
There were 24 musical numbers in the 95-minute performance with barely a handful of
scenes that contained actual dialogue. One of the standout tunes was “In Numbers.” The song was intricately layered ranging from the sound of paper stabbing through a receipt spike, to the secretaries dictating the numbers, to the men cramped in the office lusting for the female figure, all while Zero whines chauvinistically saying “Women make me sick—talk, talk, talk, talk, talk!” or “Women are the root of all deception in the world” and his irritated officemate, Daisy, croons about her unrequited love for Zero. The juxtaposition of the monotony and suffocation of the workplace and Daisy’s vulnerability and humanistic quality.
Despite the interesting collaboration in “In Numbers,” some of the other songs were not as well constructed and fitting with the tone of the play. Towards the end of the play is a sappy love duet between Zero and Daisy. She appears out of nowhere in the afterlife in a lacy, white wedding dress and they passionately serenade each other complete with welled-up tears, a quivering adam’s apple, cliché lines (“do you hear music?,) and a cheesy waltz.
There were also brief notes of musical humor: picture plastic visor-wearing accountants droning “I need a beer” and a testy Zero in jailbird garb belting out “Oh boy, my favorite! Ham and eggs!”
The intimate theater also phenomenally transported the audience not only to a different time period, but also transformed the majority of the settings successfully—even with a narrow gorge cutting through the length of the stage. The chasm served as the basement-like office as well as the platform for the jail cells. Weighty metal gates were carefully balanced on the sides of the gorge, confining Zero and the other prisoners to a miniscule square with chiaroscuro bolts of light shooting up into the prisoners hung faces’ from below.
But the interpretation of mythical, unseen land, supposedly portraying heaven or the Elysian Plains was severely disappointing: what appeared to be an enormous wrinkled bed sheet bathed in soft yellow light was draped over the entire stage.
Aside from the stage’s chasm, the strength of the play was the clever, subtle details—like the ever-present red mark of blood on Zero’s collar, dreary office lamps hanging from the ceiling, the spark of the red blanket of the bed in Mr. and Mrs. Zero’s otherwise dreary bedroom, and the worn leather subway strap Daisy clings onto while singing “I’d Rather Watch You.”
The two exceptional actors in the musical was Brendan McNab, who played Zero, and Jesus freak prisoner Shrdlu, actor John Bambery.
McNab’s committed to his complex role of a defeatist worker, desperately unhappy with his life, spewing bullets of saliva from his lips as he proclaims in a hoarse, universal urban accent “Don’t let ‘em tell you no lies. I killed him.” His character is transforms from a stoic and collected husband to an unraveling ball of doubts and emotions.
Bamery’s deep voice is naturally dramatic, especially when reciting pseudo profound lines like “Life is tragic,” satirizing those who preach of sin and redemption and deem standard books like Treasure Island as “profane.” His musical numbers “The Gospel According to Shrdlu,” was kitschy and comical, choreographed with the stereotypical church two-step from side-to-side and rhythmical snapping.
Despite, McNab and Bamery’s stellar acting, the musical was too ambitious: they
mentioned characters that were never elaborated on, such as the prostitute from across the street and Shrdlu’s mother. There were also intense racial undertones, calling minorities “niggers,” queers,” and “chinks” before busting out into “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” slamming their right hands over their chests and the sexist and exaggerated portrayal of women as either nagging housewives (Mrs. Zero) or subservient objects of affection, literally willing to take their own lives to be with the man they desire (Daisy.) Clearly, dividing them between women squawking together to gossip
Perhaps the strongest suit of the play is its relevance in today’s world of crashing economies, perpetual unemployment, and technological domination. In the play, Zero is replaced by an adding machine, a new device in the 1920’s, which is eerily similar to the affects of the 21st century’s technological improvements combined with the economic recession. To think that nothing has changed in almost a century is a scary thought that the play imposes on its audience, especially when we spend our entire lives plugged into a laptop, MP3 player, or a cell phone in this machine-dominated world. Director Melone is certainly leaving the audience with a pessimistic and grim perspective on life, yet it is also hopeful because it implies humans do choose their own fate and we can be freed from the oppression of technology and materialistic gain.
Add part comedy, part satire, part love story, add a heap of food for thought, and all musical—these elements calculated up is this musical. The Adding Machine is a frigid burst of fresh air in the sea of superficial Disney musicals; it’s refreshing when everyone doesn’t live happily ever after—and you definitely don’t need a calculator to figure that out.