Theater Review

Theater Review: Peter Marks on 'Adding Machine: A Musical' at Studio Theatre

MIRED IN MISERY: Around Mr. Zero (David Benoit) orbits a gallery of sad sacks and grotesques, including his bitter wife (Joanne Schmoll) in "Adding Machine: A Musical."
MIRED IN MISERY: Around Mr. Zero (David Benoit) orbits a gallery of sad sacks and grotesques, including his bitter wife (Joanne Schmoll) in "Adding Machine: A Musical." (Scott Suchman)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In the desert of menial employment, the creators of the blistering "Adding Machine: A Musical" find something astonishing: a symphony. Assembled on the stage at Studio Theatre, six actors playing drones in a 1920s accounting office let us eavesdrop on their thoughts, spewed in a cascade of arithmetic and a whirlpool of daydreams.

"Eighty-seven cents . . . Ninety-seven cents," an actress intones, as a keyboard repeats a single note and a percussionist adds rhythm. More voices rise with more figures in faster time, and then on top come syncopated musings. "Beer!" a worker sings. "All day I think of girls," sings another.

It's monotony to a hypnotic beat, and anything but monotonic. The inventive score of this musical -- based on Elmer Rice's 1923 nihilistic drama, "The Adding Machine" -- doesn't try to seduce you with tunefulness. The songs are for the most part staccato, discordant, delivered in rueful pitches of resentment and barely contained fury. In "Something to Be Proud Of," a surly wife (Joanne Schmoll) offers up a bitter aria intended to irritate as if she were dragging fingernails across a chalkboard. In "Zero's Confession," her imploding husband (the fabulous David Benoit) spits out the hideous bile accumulated over a lifetime of being denigrated and overlooked.

So "The King and I" this ain't. If someone you love prefers the kind of show that operates on a pleasure principle, this may not be the evening to surprise them with. "Adding Machine" is a work for more flexible musical-theater sensibilities, and if you're open to the scalding, neo-Brechtian style of composer Joshua Schmidt and his co-librettist, Jason Loewith, you'll come away with an appreciation for how much revivifying light can be cast in the dark.

Loewith stages the 90-minute piece with cleverness and agility in Studio's raw penthouse space. He has assembled a supple corps of actors, led by Benoit, playing the central role of Mr. Zero, a 25-year employee in some stifling sweatshop with filing cabinets, whose summary dismissal sets the stage for acts of retribution in both this world and the next. Around Mr. Zero orbits a gallery of sad sacks and grotesques, the most pathetic being Zero's deluded mistress, Daisy (a fine-voiced Kristen Jepperson), and the hellfire-obsessed killer he meets on death row, Shrdlu, portrayed with a glaze of baby-faced insanity by the terrific Stephen Gregory Smith.

Though the show's conceit reflects early-20th-century notions of worker exploitation, it also meshes aptly with our own time. It's a musical for a doomsday generation.

No one's worthy of our affection here, especially not Zero, who's let go after his boss (a convincingly bloodless Dan Via) decides to replace him with an adding machine, a move the volatile employee does not take at all well. Zero's violent response, however, is no act of a hero of the proletariat: He's a sullen, mean-spirited lump of clay and, as we are to discover, incapable of learning how to be a selfless person.

Benoit, an M1 tank of a man, plays tightly wound Zero as if he's capable of launching a fusillade at any moment: He glares stonily at the other characters -- a mound of menace. And yet they seem no more charitably inclined than he, coming to a dinner party hosted by Mrs. Zero and slowly revealing in scabrous melody the depths of their own ugliness. Hate spreads through "Adding Machine's" population like a flu.

The scenes leading to Mr. Zero's sorry end -- on Earth, anyway -- culminate in the production's most rousing sequence, a splendid prison number that features Smith's self-flagellating murderer leading guards and inmates in a creepy mock-spiritual, "The Gospel According to Shrdlu." (Debra Booth's portable set pieces and Ivania Stack's period costumes confer a suitably stark varnish on the proceedings.)

After the action shifts to the unexpected version of the afterlife in which Zero finds himself, "Adding Machine" changes color, too, thanks to the resourceful way Booth conjures the Elysian fields. Although in the musical's final movement the plot drifts a bit into the philosophical weeds, there's a nicely demented duet in paradise for Zero and the faithful woman he thought he'd left behind.

Schmoll makes for a satisfyingly irksome Mrs. Zero, and the quartet of actors -- Joe Peck, Katie Nigsch, Channez McQuay and Thomas Adrian Simpson -- that assumes a variety of smaller roles provide incisive support. An offstage, three-piece band conducted by Alex Tang is efficient accompaniment as well.

If the musical conveys the burdensome sense of a world without redemption, it is Benoit's brooding intensity that gives the production lift. There's nothing quite like a well-played nasty to lighten the spirit.

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