It could all have been scripted by Mel Brooks.
An ambitious but relentlessly arty and intellectual little theater company from Evanston comes up with the notion of turning Elmer Rice's 1923 thudding expressionistic drama "The Adding Machine" into (wait for it, wait for it) a brand new musical! A deadly serious musical! By a totally unknown composer from Milwaukee! The major Chicago critics love it! (Even though the characters are dead-eyed automatons who go by digits rather than names.) A visiting New York critic loves it!A New York producer reads the Chicago reviews of David Cromer's Next Theatre production, flies in to see the show, falls in love with this atonal Mr. and Mrs. Zero and the director's pitch-black staging, writes a big check and mounts a commercial production in New York -- where the principals from the original Chicago cast get more rave reviews, where Stephen Sondheim comes to see it, and where it's a great, big, fat, New York ...
But Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith's new musical version of "The Adding Machine," which opened here Monday at the appropriately gritty Minetta Lane Theatre in the West Village, has enjoyed some significant critical kudos this week.
In its Tuesday editions, the New York Times called the show "impossibly bleak, improbably brilliant" while Bloomberg's John Simon called it a "marvel" and declared that the show hit him "in the solar plexus." Even Cromer, a director not known for his cheery disposition, allowed a certain sense of satisfaction. "I'm a shot-glass-half-empty kind of guy," he said Monday. "But there seems to be some liquid."
"The people who help us at home," said Loewith, the artistic director of Next, "seem to be excited that their investment in us has paid off. This raises our profile and makes us a lot more competitive when it comes to getting funding to develop major new works."
Enthusiastic reviews or not, Rice's uniquely American experiment in Expressionism isn't likely to rival "Jersey Boys" in marketability or popularity. The show remains as dark as midnight at the bottom of a musical mine shaft. But it has good timing. On at least two counts.
First, "The Adding Machine" is part of a remarkable Chicago year in New York, a season anchored by the unparalleled success of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of "August: Osage County" on Broadway, but which seems now to have extended to all sectors of the Chicago theater community from Writers' Theatre ("Crime and Punishment") to the Hypocrites ("The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love Suicide"). Even a now-defunct Chicago theater, Pyewacket Productions, is sending a show to New York this season (Kate Harris' take on "The Conversation," opening next month at the 29th Street Repertory).
In New York, Chicago is hot -- and newly associated with disparate, serious, new theatrical work as distinct from merely in-your-face acting.
With "August" already outlasting worthy Broadway plays by such marquee names as Tom Stoppard, Aaron Sorkin and Conor McPherson (and counting), the cachet of one Chicago show clearly is now bleeding to the next.
But there's a second and more significant bit of good timing at work here.
With music by Schmidt and libretto by Schmidt and Loewith, Next's savvy artistic director, "The Adding Machine" has arrived in New York at a time when layoffs loom large in several quarters and when the lot of the steady, loyal-to-one-corporation working man has never seen more imperiled. Rice's Mr. Zero, who gets summarily replaced by the titular "new" technology after 25 years on the job, has hardly become an archaic figure. On the contrary, a whole lot of American workers are feeling like zero has become part of their name.
An ideal match
And Schimdt's score -- a fascinating blend of the atonal fugue and the mechanized melody with moving musical digressions into the optimistic possibility of life and love -- is an ideal match. So, too, is the lead actor, Joel Hatch, a relentlessly sympathetic Chicago performer who both strips down Mr. Zero to his existential core and simultaneously imbues him with both a sympathetic neediness and a sense that he could well represent a future version of ourselves.
With the help of Cromer's minimalist but coldly noir staging (with the odd welcome burst of visual wit), Schmidt and Loewith have shrewdly turned "The Adding Machine" into a kind of low-budget musical meditation on what happens to a man when his purpose, even a pointless purpose, is summarily removed.
Even in 1923, Rice captured how trouble at the office often goes on to poison a marriage. Lose your job and your home life probably sucks. Which is why Mr. Zero eventually becomes more interested in the young office-girl Daisy (the emotional and tuneful Amy Warren) than the cold-hearted Mrs. Zero (caustically played by Cyrilla Baer), who has her own permanent grayness. But even that affair is limited by the inevitable decline of those concerned and the consequences of killing the boss.
So, who knows, "The Adding Machine" might just strike a chord and end up lasting longer than Brooks' own "Young Frankenstein." And even if it lasts just a few weeks at the Minetta Lane, it still looks set to greatly raise the profile of both Schmidt, a remarkable young Midwestern talent, and Next, a long-lived Chicago-area theater that has overcome nagging financial problems and a prosaic theater space in Evanston and stuck to its creative guns. For years.
This is the theater's first foray to New York, and it did not take place without some angst. Board members at Next, which has overcome a past deficit but remains far from cushioned, declined lead producer Scott Morfee's offer to become co-producers of the New York show, although they will still get a small royalty on sales.
"Our board," Loewith said on Monday, "saw that as too much of a risk."
That's understandable. Most non-profits prefer to leave the gambling to commercial producers like Morfee.
On the way to opening night, many people involved in the show had troubles. Cromer, the Chicago-based director, had to cope with the death of his father in the days before opening. Schmidt, the composer, fell off a ladder, which, he said, "twisted like a pretzel," and injured himself. Influenza ran through the cast. But the show has been measurably improved in its transfer to the Minetta Lane -- a theater with more height and depth than Next's humble and wholly inadequate Evanston digs inside the Noyes Cultural Arts Center. The staging is tighter, the narrative crisper and the mood more intense.
On Monday night, philanthropist Jordan Nerenberg, a longtime Next board member and also one of its key donors, was surveying the lively scene in Greenwich Village with a mix of enthusiasm and amazement. Many in the cast of Steppenwolf's "August" (including Marianne Mayberry and Amy Morton) had shown up in support of their neighbor and the house also had a good smattering of transplanted Chicago actors and directors, all riding a wave.
"This gives us status," the energized Nerenberg said, admitting some surprise at how strongly the company's little show was being received. "We've now gone from a local base to a national base. We need to shake them up in Evanston. We need to make them understand back home what we've done and what we need."