Wednesday, July 9, 2008

I am not a number. I am a free man! (Theater - The Adding Machine)

"I am not a number," Patrick McGoohan used to rage on the 1960s show about a former British agent called The Prisoner, "I am a free man." Elmer Rice's 1923 play The Adding Machine features characters who are all numbered rather than named. They are indeed the antithesis of free men and women, and this play examined the dehumanizing effects of replacing workers with machines. In experiencing it through a beautiful new musical adaptation by Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt, I was struck more by the fact that these people dehumanized themselves by living unchallenging lives. Mr. Zero tries so intently to protect himself from risks to body and heart that he seemed to live no life at all. After 25 years adding numbers, sharing his desk with Daisy - a woman who read each number aloud, he is made redundant by the adding machine, kills his boss in a fit of rage, and is sentenced to death. At the beginning of the show we see that everything about Mr. Zero's life has become automated including his marriage, which consists of Mrs. Zero's comparing her life to to others and sniping at Mr. Zero's inadequacies. She is played and sung with gusto by Cyrilla Baer. The composer and librettist have created an interesting score - the opening, for example, is a fugue-like piece, composed largely of numbers both spoken and sung. The music is satisfying for being quirky, complex, and gratefully lacking in pop cliche. Although the singers in this small space were miked, I felt like I was always hearing their voices unamplified. It was a pleasure to hear singers with real voices - not over-amplified screaming. The set it simple and compact and the production focuses its attention where I wish more productions would - on the human beings, their relationships to their circumstances, each other, and themselves. This is not an easy story and it could easily turn into an evening of unadulterated gloom about ruined lives - especially with our current economy and the mainstream media's love of "real" stories - but the evening turns on element of human striving-for-better as embodied in the character of Daisy and the beautiful performance of Amy Warren. This musical is unusual for being a story about middle aged people, past their prettiness but, Daisy shows us, not necessarily their prime. I loved seeing a stage full of performers who have done some living, who know how to use their voices, their souls, and their intellects to create powerful performances full of real behavior driven by human feeling. Mr. Zero is uneducated, white, poor, rough, even bigoted - think Archie Bunker but 1920s and singing - but Joel Hatch gets us to see the heart in him. I love the roughness of his characterization - his voice had a strong Brooklyn accent and there was tons of gravel and growl in it, but he could also sing beautifully. These combine to great effect in his courtroom confession - a musical monologue. It's rare to see an emotional show stopper for a middle aged man on the musical stage. I can't think of one since Sweeney Todd's Epiphany. I loved it! My favorite part of the show was when Daisy and Mr. Zero finally get together (in the afterlife). She sits next to Mr. Zero for twenty-five years on the job in hope, living on a single fantasy of the one company picnic which Mrs. Zero couldn't attend and she believes Mr. Zero showed her some affection. Now she is well past shall we say 'marriageable age,' and she knows it. She had resigned herself to being unfulfilled, but when she meets Mr. Zero in the afterlife she decides she will not allow her second chance to go by the way she did her first. Daisy's Confession is a beautiful outpouring of repressed longing through song and Amy Warren really goes to that private place in front of us. Her singing and acting form a perfect inseparable whole as she cries, rages, and blushes before us. I'd see the whole show again just to see her. Unfortunately it is scheduled to close on July 20. If you are near New York before then, go see this lovely show. It's a commercial off-Broadway production at the Minetta Lane Theater. Here's a link. This is one of those shows I wish would tour, although the road finds it hard to sell unknown work. Perhaps this show is compact enough and can play small enough venues to make a commercially viable tour, but it's more likely that regional theater companies, especially ones with intimate spaces (under 500 seats) will pick this kind of show up and do a locally based production. I hope universities don't pick it up, because it is not a show that will benefit from youthful performances, but however it might get produced near you, if you have a chance to see it, it's a beautiful show.

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