Burlesque, bitter and funny
Clanging, banging pianos and percussion accompany Mrs. Zero’s rave-up at the outset of The Adding Machine, which the Skylight Opera Theatre opened Friday. This harangue, aimed at Mr. Zero, has real melodies. But it’s nearer to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire than to Lerner and Loewe. It surely dashed the illusions of anyone expecting a, you know, musical.
But a funny thing happens during this aria, and increasingly through the show as a whole: It becomes weirdly funny. The tragedy breaks through some barrier and becomes black comedy. This is not gritty drama; The Adding Machine, based on Elmer Rice’s 1923 play and done here as a period piece, is part dark burlesque and part dark fable.
Mr. Zero, as the name implies, is an allegory for the worst in all of us and in America. (In the latter regard, not much has changed.) True, he has some bad breaks and a lousy job and a harridan for a wife. But also true: He put himself into those situations and filled himself with hate and bigotry.
The cast, under Kate Buckley’s canny direction and aided by Holly Payne’s costumes, finds just the right level of carnival mojo. They’re big, garish, and aggressive with one another and with the audience. Jivoff and Pazik, especially, get in your face. The music and the interactions build in patterns that form the rhythm of the show. Things get more and more terrible until the balloon bursts and we let out the tension in well-earned laughter. Then it starts all over again. The comedy is at once outrageously broad and highly sophisticated.
Composer Joshua Schmidt and co-librettist Jason Loewith stayed close to Rice’s play, which comprises seven vastly differing scenes. Schmidt ingeniously drew upon drastically different period styles to characterize each scene and, to a lesser extent, reflect the characters. Just as the Expressionist racket fits Mrs. Zero, a dead-on and lovely 1920s style jazz ballad rises from Niffer Clarke. She plays Daisy, the sweet but weak and fading ingenue Mr. Zero might have claimed (were he not such a pious, repressed jackass).
In the office scene, my favorite in the show, Clarke and Jivoff, Toni Inzeo and Parker Cristan and Chris Krasovich and Jonathan Stewart pair off to call out and add up sales receipts manually. (Their impending replacement by adding machines precipitates the action of the play.) Their spoken, accompanied rhythm piece incorporates the calling of numbers, the bicker and banter of co-workers, and the private, not so nice thoughts of the men. The composition is ingenious, captivating and hugely complicated. I will never know how the performers — including pianists Jeremy Ramey and Ruben Piirainen and percussionist Mike Lorenz — kept it all straight, but they did.
Schmidt gave Mr. Zero a rant to rival that of his wife, but in a different idiom. Mr. Zero’s screed declares not only a lack of remorse for killing his boss, but pride in the act. He takes the opportunity to declare his hatred, in most offensive terms, for every conceivable minority group (which in 1923 still included Poles, Irish and Italians). Jivoff delivered this diatribe from a high platform and in a white-hot fury of arrogance. He made me think of Mussolini, which was perfect — Mussolini was as ridiculous as he was frightening. (Jason Fassl’s chiaroscuro lighting and Nathan Stuber’s monumental sets give the piece the nifty look of an antique German Expressionist film.)
Rice hated the clichés of popular fiction and movies, and he turned them on their heads in The Adding Machine. On the eve of execution, for example, Mr. Zero joins fellow inmate Shrdlu (Rick Pendzich, terrific as a guilt-ridden man who murdered his mother) in a rollicking Gospel number. But they haven’t found God; Shrdlu sings to celebrate his anticipated trip to hell.
Leave it to Elmer Rice to offer no redemption at the end. The moral of the story is: Life is crap, then you die, then there’s more crap, then you die again. Forever. The Adding Machine puts your brain into the right place to see the humor in that.
The Skylight will run The Adding Machine through June 12 in the Cabot Theatre of the Broadway Theatre Center Tickets are $24-$63.50. Visit the company’s website or call the BTC box office, 414 291-7800.