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Monday, March 3, 2008

Legit Theatre: Adding Machine Profits From Sharp Music, Direction, Staging and Acting

Joel Hatch and Amy Warren

Adding Machine, now playing off-Broadway in the wonderfully intimate Minetta Lane Theatre, is a new musical based on Elmer Rice's classic play The Adding Machine. Rice's original, which took in the dehumanization of man in the face of corporatism and mechanization way back in the 1920s still feels fresh. A story about a man who is fired after years of service and the revenge he takes on his boss is as trenchant as can in these times of looming recession. The adaptation by Next Theatre Company artistic director Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt (who doubled on both libretto and music) plays to the original's many strengths while totally revamping the play as a musical with a great deal of the dialogue now sung.

What helps cement this together is the fresh and inventive staging -- Director David Cromer and Scenic Designer Takeshi Kata make brilliant use of the compact stage and the arrangement of the performers in each given scene. We open for instance on Mr. and Mrs. Zero in bed, only the bed is standing on end so that we are looking down upon their supine forms. Later we see Zero's workplace with it's regimented darkly lit row of desks stretching downstage.

The inventiveness of the staging is mirrored by the musical arrangements -- at times dissonant but never tryingly so -- they resolve into bold choruses and break down into mechanistic rhythms.

Joel Hatch plays Mr. Zero with gruffness and bullheaded devotion to numbers. He's unapologetically warts and all. Just as we begin to sympathize with him we are reminded of his close-mindedness and his self-denial. His voice is strong and his look is perfect, his blunt bald head and bulldog stance pounded down by the weight of his own prejudices and the strictures of society.

Cyrilla Baer plays the tricky role of Mrs. Zero, her voice swooping and diving as she alternately gossips and henpecks her husband. It's the most cliched role in both versions of this play and requires the actress to find some humanity within, which Ms. Baer ably does.

The audience's sympathies mostly go to the character of Daisy -- not a number like so many others in Adding Machine but a beautiful blooming flower in love with her boss and trampled down by the world. Amy Warren is terrific at expressing her inner thoughts and tough outer shell, and she gets a great show stopper of a tune in the solo "I'd Rather Watch You", a period 20's style ballad.

The second half of the play has always been the flattest for me -- taking place as it does in the afterlife removes it from the grit of all that has come before. This is the best staging of it I've seen, opened up by the clever set and songs. Joe Farrell's Shrdlu, a self-confessed sinner who is bummed to find no punishment awaiting him also adds considerably to this section.

Adding Machine challenges without being strident and is appropriately faithful to its source without being slavish. I have a hunch this may be Broadway bound so see it while you still can in the intimate confines of The Minetta Lane Theatre.

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