A shell-shocked silence filled the GableStage auditorium in Coral Gables Saturday night. The ensemble had just finished a hugely complicated musical number, and from the audience: nothing. Maybe they wanted to applaud, but something in the crowd's vibe warned against it. Theirs was a silence that communicated not disinterest, not boredom, but something weirder and somehow hostile — an as-yet-unnamed cousin to anger.
At least that was the atmosphere on opening night of Adding Machine. Yet it's doubtful any GableStage punter would claim this musical is bad or even mediocre. In fact it is good in all the standard ways: well written, well directed, well sung, well acted, trenchant, unpredictable. But it is not entertaining, which is only proper. For GableStage's executive artistic director, Joe Adler, it is a bad day when he does not make somebody squirm, and although his audience is as aged and hoi oligoi as that of any director in the region, his fans are well trained to dig the wiggle. It's just something about Adding Machine goes a little too far.
This is a musical about the banality of labor, the way the cumulative effect of going to work day after day for years on end makes you something less than human. And then, in one of those hideous quick-changes, Adding Machine makes you realize you were lucky for the chance to be so dehumanized. That is certainly the case with Adding Machine's protagonist, Mr. Zero (Oscar Cheda), who spends his days tallying numbers and his nights as a punching bag in a loveless marriage to a human barracuda (Meribeth Graham). He waits 25 years for a raise so that maybe, maybe one day his wife will look at him with something like respect, and then loses his job to the titular "adding machine" and is kicked to the curb by a boss (Ken Clement) who can't quite remember his name. (Zero then kills his boss and is later executed, after which he ascends to the Elysian Fields before being reincarnated as yet another human doormat.)
Adding Machine: Written by Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith. Directed by Joe Adler. With Irene Adjan, Jim Ballard, Oscar Cheda, Ken Clement, Meribeth Graham, Lisa Manulli, Stacy Schwartz, and Barry Tarralo. Through January 25. GableStage at The Biltmore, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; 305-445-1119, www.gablestage.com
At that moment, at the bleeding, oozing ass-end of 2008, who in the audience really wanted to spend their Saturday night watching some poor bastard chewed to a pulp by the grinding gears of capitalism? Nobody, that's who. It would be like Barack Obama unwinding with some popcorn and the Zapruder film. We know the smelly muck on capitalism's gears is likely to be us in a week or three, and we don't relish being reminded of the fact by these (gainfully employed) members of Actors' Equity. So the premise, abetted by what has to be 2008's creepiest production, probably left the audience stunned and unsettled.
A newish show based on Elmer Rice's long-forgotten 1923 "impressionist" play of the same name, Adding Machine is only the second musical Joe Adler's GableStage has produced. Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt penned the musical version, and it's more like an opera than the usual musical. Most of the dialogue is sung rather than spoken, recitative-style, and few of the songs actually end — they slow to a near-halt and then transform into something else. These transformations are always anguished; discordant and sometimes bordering on the atonal, the music doesn't segue so much as crumble. The sets — at least the earthly ones — are an acid-drenched take on modernist, minimalist functionalism, like Le Corbusier filtered through Ralph Steadman's pens.
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Le Corbusier famously called his houses "machines for living." Less famously, a group of wags and dissidents in the Forties claimed the true function of those homes was to produce "machines to live in them." This is precisely what GableStage's cast members appear to be. Oscar Cheda often looks like he is trying to channel Mr. Zero's mechanical replacement: Unthinking as a stopwatch and blind as a mole, he cocks his squinted face upward to appraise any passing authority with a shy smile, or else, when no one is around, he twists his mouth into a little sideways sneer and barks terrible invective at any target that presents itself (this is a play in which the robot-drone chorus — played with hideously unblinking vitality by Irene Adjan, Erik Fabregat, Lisa Manulli, and Barry Tarallo — has no problem singing the word niggers over and over as an expression of a class rage that cannot seem to find its proper targets).
Machines have no free will, and in Adding Machine, neither do the characters. Even those rare characters who show a hint of human emotion — such as Mr. Zero's fellow death-row inmate, Shrdlu (Jim Ballard), who sings with all the desperate grandeur of a late-Seventies Elvis, and Mr. Zero's paramour, played with gorgeous wistfulness by Stacy Schwartz — cannot see beyond their own guilt, station, or particular hangup. They are all marionettes, controlled by something we cannot see.
Adding Machine is a short one and a half hours, and it runs without intermission. It might try to do too much too fast. Domestic decay, economic dislocation, murder, young love, the afterlife, reincarnation — the play hits on all of these topics. But they all are really of the same piece. The same forces of subjugation and dehumanization chase these characters across every sector of life and even the afterlife. No matter where you flee, in the entire cosmos, it will always be Same Shit, Different Day.
Life might have seemed precisely this blinkered when Rice wrote the original play in the postwar industrial purgatory of 1923. Science, progress, the future — all roads must have seemed to lead to the same faceless gray cities, to the same kinds of mechanized alienation in which anything soft and organic was redundant. It's a Marxist critique, and one most grownups think we've outgrown. But it still has power as art. Let's hope we can respect it as such, despite our fear that Loewith and Schmidt's choice of source material won't prove prescient. Our fear is useless in any case. Canaries, after all, do not kill miners.