Dallas — Jocelyn Girigorie’s bleak, angular set, reminiscent of the 1929 silent film classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, provides the perfect backdrop for the kaleidoscope of ideas and themes in Theatre Three’s production of Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt’s 2009 off-Broadway hit Adding Machine: A Musical, directed by Blake Hackler. Based on Elmer Rice’s 1923 play The Adding Machine, a cutting-edge critique of industrial and post-industrial society, this musical setting features a dark but playful, often humorously contradictory abundance of philosophical and political views, with a lean but glitteringly eclectic musical score. The result is a unique and strikingly compelling evening of theater.
At the same time Russian novelist Evgeny Zamyatin was inventing the concept of a dystopia in which people have numbers rather than names in his groundbreaking novel We, playwright Rice created a cast filled with Eights, Twelves, and, the principal character Mr. Zero, here acted with bumbling perfection by Thomas Ward. (For the record, Zamyatin beat Rice to the concept of numbers as names, but the first English translation of We did not appear until after Rice had written The Adding Machine, so it’s unlikely he stole the idea from Zamyatin.)
Mr. Zero begins his journey in a world of quiet desperation: Mrs. Zero (Jeni Roller) nags, envies her friends (the Eights and the Twelves), and longs for the vague ideal she calls “sweet and wholesome.” Meanwhile, Mr. Zero and the real love of his life, co-worker Daisy DeVore (played with bitter-sweet naiveté by Allison Pistorius) have been reduced to expressing their suppressed, unconsummated mutual affection via hateful repartee on the job. The neighbors come over and gleefully shout a list of racial and ethnic epithets—the N word, the K word, the W word—before bursting into “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” This bitter portrayal of modern American life bursts open when, after 25 years of adding columns of figures, Mr. Zero is fired and replaced by an adding machine. He responds by murdering his boss, is duly executed, and spends the rest of play maneuvering through various manifestations of the afterlife.
Before his execution, he has a not-so-reconciling moment with Mrs. Zero, in which they voice their regrets for what might have been; the illogically loyal Daisy follows Mr. Zero into the afterlife with a not-so-accidental suicide. The audience, meanwhile, is given a roller-coaster ride of alternatingly hating and feeling sorry for Mr. Zero, while swinging from hope for his redemption to hopelessness in his refusal to redeem himself. Evil capitalists and complacent wage slaves share equal blame for the modern dilemma; masochistic Christianity takes some punches as well in the form of a murderer (Brandon McInnis) who is looking forward to the joys of eternal damnation.
This dramatic tour-de-force, packed into a single 90-minute act without intermission, is matched by the varied score; composer and co-librettist Schmidt clearly delighted in stretching the resources of a three-person orchestra (here directed by Mark Mullino) of acoustic piano, keyboard, and percussion, through a maze ranging from gospel to sentimental balladry to Prokofievian polytonality.
While Ward as Mr. Zero has a weak (occasionally off-pitch) voice, Roller as Mrs. Zero gives an outstandingly flexible vocal performance. McInnis as the religious-fanatic-cum-murderer delivers an impressively energetic performance, amusingly appearing with fewer and fewer clothes, down to boxer shorts at the end of the play. John Daniel Pszyk, as the Boss, arches from the evil, uncaring capitalist boss into a tired, perplexed ruler of the universe—a sort of divine janitor. Director Hackler and choreographer Danielle Georgiou fill the minimal sets with constant motion and energy. Amanda Capshaw O’Donoghue’s 1920s-style costumes help maintain the gently nagging tension of timeliness and timelessness, while the faux Queens accents of the performers push toward an appropriate level of cartoonishness in the midst of the dark plot.
The issues of emotional displacement and alienation that concerned the post-World War I avant-garde continue in the 21st century, resonating in every moment of the musical Adding Machine. With the help of Rice’s century-old concept, Loewith and Schmidt’s version, beautifully realized by the cast and creative staff of Theatre Three, keeps us constantly and simultaneously on the edge of laughter and despair for a remarkable theatrical experience.