The curtain comes up on "Adding Machine," a little musical with a lot to say, to reveal a disorienting view of a double bed, upended on its footboard, with two people lying -- actually standing -- next to each other. Mr. Zero is facing away from his wife while Mrs. Zero drones on about what a disappointment Mr. Zero is, and how hard she works. Mr. Zero lies motionless.
Scene 2 is a dimly lit office in which Mr. Zero is diligently recording sales into a ledger as numbers are dictated to him by Daisy, his office assistant who secretly loves him. After each entry, Daisy impales the sales slip on an ominous-looking bill spike and reads the next number. From Daisy's expression, we can see she is suffering; Mr. Zero remains impassive.
For his whole adult life, Mr. Zero has labored at this labor, never missing a day, never making a mistake, loyal and steadfast. But today is special -- his 25th anniversary with the company, and he expects a promotion to the front desk. Instead, Boss tells him he's being replaced by an adding machine.
Is it any wonder then, that Mr. Zero murders Boss?
These two engrossing scenes set up the rest of the nightmare-ish "Adding Machine," a 1923 drama by Elmer Rice who was known as a social thinker concerned about individual freedom and the tyranny of impersonal institutions. What follows is Mr. Zero's journey from jail to the Elysian Fields, and his struggle with unlimited freedom.
While the rest of the play is not as tautly staged, nor is it even remotely funny (though it has moments), one cannot help comparing it to the hilarious "Groundhog Day," in which local weatherman Phil Connors must cover the eponymous event in Punxatwaney, PA even though he hates doing it.
When Phil awakes the next morning, he discovers it's the exact same day. In fact, he continues to relive that same day until he understands that only he can make his life different. He eventually gets it, but Mr. Zero hasn't got Connors' smarts. The result is both spiritual and actual death.
In a jail cell on death row, the unlikely felon is visited by Mrs. Zero. Impending death, however, has the unique ability to clarify things, and In an unexpectedly tender duet, "Ham and Eggs," Mr. Zero almost evokes our sympathy as the two sing of some gentle moments between them. Almost.
Cut to Mr. Zero in a Hallmark-like version of the Elysian Fields where the likes of Mr. Zero and the world's other undesirables, unfortunates, and miscreants are invited to roam with impunity, Judgment Day be damned (so to speak). Suddenly the dark gray of Mr. Zero's life lifts, and he finds himself in a world of sunshine and color.
But with no rules and moral guidelines, Mr. Zero cannot compute. John Lennon once asked us to "Imagine there's no Heaven," and writers Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt go to great metaphorical lengths to show us the result of those imaginings, leaning on us to contemplate what we would do if given a second chance at life, and how we might fit into this world of New Technology in which anyone over 19 seems to be irrelevant.
These uncomfortable suggestions are emboldened by the show's dissonant music that intentionally grates on the ears, and the only song that even comes close to being melodic is "Daisy's Confession" in which she reveals her feelings to Mr. Zero. Amy Warren, who plays this endearing character -- the only one with a proper name -- manages to provide some comic relief in what is otherwise a grim play.
Cyrilla Baer is an austere and self-involved Mrs. Zero, singing about her unhappy life, her lost dreams, and her loveless marriage, hitting notes that will send shock waves through your nervous system. As her husband, Joel Hatch gives a strong and convincing performance of a man who will forever be nothing.
But "Adding Machine" is anything but nothing. This small musical is a thinking person's show, and if you think you can bear the music, go see it.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus