Review: “Adding Machine: A Musical” (The Hypocrites)

The cast of "Adding Machine: A Musical"/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis
The cast of “Adding Machine: A Musical”/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Show: Adding Machine: A Musical

Company: The Hypocrites

Venue: The Den Theatre (1329 N Milwaukee Ave)

Die Roll: 17

Chicago, or rather the Chicago area, has had an intimate history with Elmer Rice’s play “The Adding Machine”.  The play was originally written in 1923, which conveniently puts it on the right side of the line when it comes to being in the public domain.  And therefore it is a great piece of theatre to adapt into further works of art.  In the last 30 years, we have been lucky to host the biggest of those adaptations.  Back in the late 80s and early 90s, Hystopolis Productions took the play one step farther down the path of dehumanization (a central theme of the work) by adapting the piece to be performed by puppets.  Their production eventually made it to NYC.  Then, a little under ten years ago, The Next Theatre Company created a musical based on the play.  And, as one might expect, through the addition of music a sense of deep human connection was instilled where it had not been before.  It is this musical that The Hypocrites have brought to life in a new production at their home base on the ground floor of The Den Theatre.

In a true embodiment of having a number rather than a name, Mr. Zero (Patrick Du Laney) is a working schlub who notes numbers in a pad all day long.  He’s been doing it for 25 years.  He’s been doing it across the table from a woman whom he might love were it not for his miserable marriage to Mrs. Zero (a role fiercely sung by Kelli Harrington). On Mr. Zero’s 25th anniversary at the job, he is fired and in a fit of anger, he kills his boss (Andres Enriquez).

Patrick Du Laney/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis
Patrick Du Laney/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

The show is basically a modern opera.  There is almost no plainly spoken dialogue.  What spoken words there are outside of songs are often delivered in a rhythmic cant that doubles for what recitative does in classical opera.  So, I find that I am disappointed that the singers were individually mic’d.  Can’t singers in this town project?  This is an ongoing frustration on mine, and it’s not unique to The Hypocrites’ production.  That being said, I’ve heard some of these cast members sing full voice before, and I would have preferred the cast to have been allowed to raise to the operatic levels of the piece itself.  The inconsistencies of volume that come with singing into another person’s microphone as well as one’s own were heard throughout the show marring the otherwise wonderfully executed music.

Joshua Schmidt’s music could be compared to what one might expect if a Sondheim score and a song my Phillip Glass had a baby.  Despite how you might take that statement, it is intended as a good thing.  The score is complex, concussive, repetitive, and eerily melodic at the same time.  The music carries powerful emotional moments forward.  This is especially true when telling the tale of Daisy (Neala Barron) whose unrequited love for Mr. Zero carries through life and beyond the grave.  Barron, who I last saw in a production of “[title of show]” has a tremendous voice and imbues her character with pathos to spare.  She is the humanizing force of this play personified.

Kelli Harrington, Jonah D. Winston, and Patrick Du Laney/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis
Kelli Harrington, Jonah D. Winston, and Patrick Du Laney/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

The world spins out of control around Mr. Zero.  This fact is fully realized through the constant motion and changing of the set and lights (designed by Lauren Nigri and Mike Durst, respectively).  Many scenes feature a sedentary, and unchangeable, Mr. Zero in his chair as life and the world itself go on around him. Geoff Button’s staging thrusts the audience through the changes that his main character refuses to be a part of.  Mr. Zero’s single actual action in his life was to kill his boss.  Outside of that, it is his own refusal to participate in life that pushes humanity away from him.  It isn’t the machinations of others, nor the advance of technology intruding to make life less human.  He does that to himself in this musical.  The physical world is more dynamic than Mr. Zero.  In fact, the set is more of a character than Mr. Zero.  Du Laney had a challenge before him to create a character that is at once non-dynamic and empathetic.  He accomplishes this with aplomb.

The play does occasionally suffer from pacing issues.  There is a point at about the 70-minute mark wherein the show feels like it could be done, only to keep going for another 20 minutes or so.  That being said, it does ramp up and get going again with improved energy, but the lag in the middle there throws things off for a few minutes.  Yet, that’s only about 3 minutes out of a 90-minute performance that is otherwise elevated to a high level.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Man is victim of own inertia in a whirlwind world.

RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”