Review: "Adding Machine" compelling, poignant

Occasionally, a piece of experimental theater comes along that hits all the right notes. The story, the performances and the execution combine seamlessly to create a poignant and thought-provoking piece of art.

University Theatre’s new staging of “Adding Machine: A Musical” is such a production. An intriguing script, modern score, strong performances, and an interactive set make for an insightful piece of theatrical commentary on the meaning of life.

Based on a 1923 Elmer Rice play, the musical tells the story of Mr. Zero (Michael Wysong), an unimaginative milquetoast, who has spent a 25-year career doing nothing but adding figures in the basement of a large retail store. He has deluded himself into believing The Boss (Blake Beardall) has been watching him approvingly and will reward his years of service with a promotion. Instead, Zero is laid off in favor of the new invention – an adding machine – which can do the job cheaper, faster and more accurately.

Henpecked at home by his shrewish wife (Elaina Smith) and wishing he had the nerve to divorce her in favor of his assistant Daisy Devore (Hailey Lapin), he cannot stand that his entire life has come to nothing. He murders The Boss in rage and frustration, and, because he has never done anything, he confesses to the crime and refuses to accept a diagnosis of temporary insanity. He is convicted and executed, whereupon he goes to Heaven and discovers what life is really about... and misses the point completely.

Wysong is compelling to watch as Zero. In the early parts of the show, he has few lines. He stands quietly, seething, stewing, harboring his resentment as Mrs. Zero upbraids him for one failing after another. At a dinner party in his honor, he doesn't participate. He just listens contemptuously as the guests and his wife prattle on. But when he describes his fantasy of getting his coveted promotion, he is passionate and enthusiastic, playing it with the deep conviction that only the deluded can give to dreams that will never happen. In court, he rages that he did it, he is responsible. He demands to be remembered, because for the first time in his life he had the nerve to do something, even if it is as heinous as murder. It’s a brilliant performance. Wysong brings Zero to life and makes him disturbingly real.

His supporting cast is equally good. Smith is fun to watch as the disappointed Mrs. Zero. She is convinced everyone has a better life than she does, and she verbally assaults Zero mercilessly. Smith has command of the subtler aspects of her character, though. She offers a complex portrayal, showing real sympathy and regret for Zero before his execution.

Likewise, Lapin gives a layered performance as the long-suffering Daisy Devore. She has grown so frustrated with Zero for not acting on his feelings for her. She loves him and hates him at the same time. When he is executed, she is distraught.

Cale Morrow is wonderfully over the top as the crazed fundamentalist Shrdlu. Also set for execution, he is convinced he is going to Hell, he will be horrifically tortured and it will be very just. He explains the same will happen to Zero. Morrow is gleeful as he describes what will happen to them. The insane grin and the fevered excitement of his voice convey both the horror of his madness and the grim humor of the mental torture he inadvertently inflicts on Zero just before the end.

Jason Leowith and Joshua Schmidt’s script is perfectly paced. It alternates between humor and tragedy, between hopelessness and fantasy. Schmidt’s score is very modern. It borders on atonal at times, and perfectly captures that sense of a giant, mechanized society the characters cannot understand. The music is difficult, and the cast and the orchestra render it perfectly. In particular, “Harmony, Not Discord” uses minimalism, with the cast reciting numbers over and over to create an intricate piece of music. Featuring little accompaniment, the piece turns the singers into instruments to make a musical statement about the unchanging, lusterless lives of the store’s employees.

There’s another component to this production that really makes it stand out, and that is the set design. Rather than build pieces for the actors to move through and on, scenic designer Mark Reaney offers a single platform with ramps and a few stools. But he projects computer-generated scenes onto the back wall and, on occasion, onto the floor. The opening scene is especially clever. The Zeros are in bed, so Wysong and Smith stand against a back drop, and a bed is projected behind them as if we are looking down from the ceiling. When they get up to start their day, the projection rotates so our perspective is now from the floor.

In the Afterlife, the visuals are particularly surreal. Combining art from multiple time periods, pastoral scenes, and rotating two-dimensional windows that contain the chorus as it sings, it is an avant-garde and strangely beautiful place.

Clocks are omnipresent in the scenery. There are few times we don't see one, and the pendulums and the hands are always moving in perfect time to the tempo of the music. It’s a nice touch that brings the whole musical together neatly.

All of the imagery is obviously computer-generated. Rather than appearing realistic, the characters look as though they are in a videogame, which adds further ironic horror to the meaninglessness of their lives. Director Mechele Leon has crafted a show that is a visual, auditory and spiritual feast.

“Adding Machine: A Musical” is a grand piece of experimental theater that succeeds on every level. Well written, expertly directed and beautifully performed, it hits all the right notes as a profound statement on the meaning of life, machines and modernity.

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