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In turning Elmer Rice’s 1923 Expressionist play/acerbic rant about a schlub ground up by capitalism’s gears into a musical, co-writers Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt didn’t sweeten it.
Which, right there, is why Adding Machine: The Musical’s the caustic little gem of a show it is. But the fact remains: The play’s tone is so gimlet-eyed and unsentimental, its characters so assiduously unsympathetic, that the demands it places on both performers and audiences are very real.
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In Studio’s production, directed by Loewith, it’s the actors who find the way in. The libretto tells us that there’s not much love left to be lost between David Benoit’s lumpen wage-slave Mr. Zero and Joanne Schmoll’s shrill wife; she laments the sorry state of their marriage (“Something to Be Proud Of”) while he fumes silently. But later on, as Zero sits in jail, there’s a moment—small, and refuted as soon as it’s asserted, but real—when Benoit and Schmoll connect (“Didn’t We?”) that seems to arise out of nowhere and attains all the more power because of it. Without that moment, the play might easily succumb to its penchant for broadness.
Stephen Gregory Smith, as Zero’s self-flagellating fellow inmate, gets a laugh simply by bending his flexible tenor around the words “leg of lamb” and throws himself headlong into a gospel fervor at exactly the moment the show needs a boost. Kristen Jepperson finds a kernel of intelligence in her love-starved Daisy that keeps the character from descending into caricature.
It’s the music, though, that gets into your head and stays there—a pleasing and diverse grab-bag of styles expertly tailored to whatever emotion’s getting expressed. The admirably complex but euphonious “Office Reverie,” in which lists of numbers read into ledgers become their own backbeat, is a standout. Loewith and Schmidt know to hold the melodious stuff back so it can make a big impression when it does show up, and spend much of the show’s running time instead tinkering with dissonance and polyrhythm in a host of small, interesting ways.
There’s an unhurried quality to some of the later numbers that rankles a bit; lyrics tend to take their own sweet time getting off the starting block. And the play’s climax is essentially a talky, here’s-the-message information dump that probably shouldn’t feel as vestigial as it does.
But Adding Machine is the real thing, a scabrous and inventively off-kilter critique of the unexamined life that’s that rarest of treats—one that’s both satisfying and sugar-free.