Relief From Cornball Retro! Adding Machine Is a Calculated Triumph

It’s no secret that much of our theater is living nostalgically in the 1950s. Coming to a theater near you: The Dancing Eisenhower Years. And why not? This season alone has seen Broadway revivals of South Pacific, Gypsy, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and, of all soapy period plays with an alcoholic hero, William Inge’s saga Come Back, Little Sheba (1950). Whatever next!

Well, later this month there’s the Broadway revival of Clifford Odets’ backstage saga with an alcoholic hero, The Country Girl (1950), directed by Mike Nichols with an all-star cast. (When hasn’t Mr. Nichols used an all-star cast?) Cry-Baby, the new Broadway musical that’s set in 1950s Baltimore (again), is an adaptation of John Waters’ affectionate parody of the rock ’n’ roll era of Elvis (again). And there’s the musical version A Catered Affair, based on Paddy Chayefsky’s 1955 TV drama and better known as the collector’s item starring Bette Davis as a Bronx housewife married to Ernest Borgnine.

The retro musicals all share an inevitable dopey dollop of sentimentality. That’s what Broadway’s for! Stephen Sondheim is regularly called in to save the day. This season’s most prestigious revival is his Sunday in the Park With George (1984), imported from that tasteful, superior place, England. But for me, the production’s raved-over digital animation isn’t an example of art on Broadway, but of Disneyfication.

It’s safe to say that revivals are safe—a much safer bet, anyway, than the shock of the new. Who takes real risks any more? Who courts danger? There are a handful of idealists and independent producers who still believe in creating theater for its own glorious, uncompromised sake. They thrive on new work. They even believe in the innate intelligence of audiences. They must be mad.

 

WHICH BRINGS ME happily to the good news about Adding Machine at downtown’s Minetta Lane Theatre. It isn’t a revival; it’s a wonderfully original musical.

David Cromer’s exceptional production wasn’t created in New York. It arrived here via that theatrical powerhouse, Chicago, where the Next Theatre Company is among the most adventurous in town. The gifted members of Adding Machine’s intimate ensemble might be unknown to most New Yorkers. Their performances are of the highest order. The uncommon score by Joshua Schmidt (who also wrote the witty libretto with Jason Loewith) is a near-perfect musicalization of Elmer Rice’s legendarily mordant play. Together these fine artists have created a small masterpiece.

Nothing could be less sentimental than Rice’s 1923 parable of the dark side of the American Dream in this sweet land of liberty. Adding Machine—which became known as the first Expressionist play in America—tells the bizarre story of a nobody named Mr. Zero who’s fired from his soulless job as a bookkeeper after 25 years, replaced by a cost-effective adding machine. Now, an anonymous antihero who’s symbolically named Mr. Zero would usually have me looking around for Mr. Exit. But this is very different. Played by the riveting Joel Hatch, Zero is a trapped and furious everyman whose fatal flaw is that he craves the safe and the known.

This modest show, on the other hand, is the least safe imaginable. It’s not just that our hero isn’t nice. He appears to have no life or redeeming qualities whatsoever. He’s a bigoted working stiff who murders the boss who fired him. (“I killed the boss this afternoon,” he says matter-of-factly to his endlessly complaining wife). He’d also like to kill her—but that’s more forgivable.

She’s a nightmare. In the extraordinary first scene that takes place in a cold marital bed placed upright onstage, the director gambles everything on what can only be described as the unstoppable nagging aria of Mrs. Zero. Has there ever been an opening number like it? Performed by the terrific Cyrilla Baer, “Something to Be Proud of” is an astonishing, jarring song of yammering envy and complaint. (“Oh!/ I was a fool./ A fool for marrying you./ I didn’t pick much when I picked you!”)

Every scene that follows is exactly paced, honest and complete. Zero’s confessional mini-opera in explosive defense of himself during the trial scene is a spellbinding tour de force from Mr. Hatch. (“I’m like anyone else/ What would you do?/ What would you do?/ I killed him!”). Our misogynist hero—“Women make me sick!”—is also a casual racist. (So are his neighbors.) The crude epithets spat out at dinner party—“The wops!/ The chinks!/ The niggers!/ The queers!”—make the scene unapologetically authentic. (The racism currently on display in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific is discreetly ambiguous. That’s showbiz.)

Relief From Cornball Retro! Adding Machine Is a Calculated Triumph