Adding Machine: A Musical; Through May 12; Live Arts

Mr. Zero (played by Jon Cobb, right) counts on redemption in the afterlife in Live Arts’ production of Adding Machine, directed by Bree Luck. (Publicity photo)

Recognizing that the gift of history clouds the past, I’ve often wondered why Elmer Rice’s allegorical play, The Adding Machine, is considered such a classic of modern theater. I don’t doubt it was groundbreaking in 1923, its expressionism being theatrical lex ferenda, surrealism lite for the people. However, currently it plays not unlike the clunkier lessons of “The Twilight Zone:” a man is trapped in a painful cycle of industrialized reincarnation. He loves, he barely lives, he never learns.

This is not to speak ill of the current Live Arts production of the 2007 musical version of the play, which is quite enjoyable and admirable. Director Bree Luck is a charming artist whose good nature is pervasive in this staging. Her cast is both ironclad and twee, to the success of their assemblage.

Jon Cobb is a bitten Mr. Zero; a protagonistic precursor to Willy Loman, but without his head in the clouds. An affable schmuck, Mr. Zero’s one dream is to bang the cute blonde (played by Marija Reiff) at the office.* Cobb’s brows pierce his eyes as his henpecked simpleton of a character tries in vain to process complexity. Zero’s frustrations are indolent amid self-inflicted stoicism.

The ensemble prances along with relish. At curtain, a reedy Mrs. Zero (Amy Anderson) aces her complicit role in the boiling psyche of her husband. Chris Estey, as Shrdlu, is somewhat a ghost of Christendom past, present, and furrowed. Reiff, the target of Zero’s adulterous affections, springs forth in adorable arias. Newcomer Alli Villines, as Mrs. One, had me at “25.”

Will Slusher’s scenery is a puzzle box with stairs that hide beds for both flowers and sleeping; upended tables become prison cells. Scenery changes, stage anathema, are played as sinister intermezzi without much distraction.

If I had any quarrel with Adding Machine: A Musical, it’s not the Live Arts production, but rather the decision of the revivalists, Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt, to keep too much of the original Elmer Rice play in their adaptation. Unlike many classic plays of the 20th century, The Adding Machine is not set in any particular place at any particular time; it could have been updated for today’s audiences without losing the message. It certainly need not be a period piece. Because of this, the overt racism and misogyny of the germinal material rings hollow. It’s not so much offensive as needlessly distracting and anachronistic. This isn’t agit-prop theatre; Rice staged the original Adding Machine a mere eight years after Griffith’s Birth of A Nation. The Civil Rights Movement was decades away. We recognize the actual adding machine as a MacGuffin, a technological totem upon which we hang fears of occupational obsolescence. Good parables work despite revision for congruency to the zeitgeist.

But, choose this script Live Arts did. The nascent sniff of the White Man’s Burden within the source material is, even incidentally, theirs to shoulder.

Excepting these flaws of the libretto, the Live Arts production of Adding Machine: A Musical, is far from disappointing. Its heart is in the right place, and it is played plumb and succinctly. The cast is tackling a gauntlet of ideas, but the ultimate message of redemption is welcome.

*Yes, yes. I realize that Willy Loman also wanted to bang the cute blonde in the office.

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