Smart calculation: In the wintry depths of the Great Recession, Know Theatre of Cincinnati brings a bleak chamber opera based on an anti-capitalist play from the 1920s, in which an outsourced drone gets revenge on the boss.
Adding Machine: A Musical was a Chicago sensation in 2007. Acclaimed stagings in New York and Washington, D.C., plus a strangely addicting cast album, have made the show a favorite among musical theatre fandom’s lunatic fringe. Now director Michael Burnham and a committed Know company make it clear that with national unemployment stuck near 10 percent, among other troubling indicators both economic and social, Adding Machine’s time has come. Still, certain variables are missing or misplaced in this otherwise brilliant formula.
Robert Pavlovich plays Mr. Zero, a man locked in an unhappy marriage and a mind-numbing job adding up the day’s receipts in a department store. After 25 years of service, Zero loses his position to a mechanical device — one with lower “costs of upkeep” than a human being, he’s told. The exit interview ends in murder, we learn later; Zero’s own surprising end points to the true hopelessness of his situation. And possibly ours as well.
Those already in love with Joshua Schmidt’s unsettling, mesmerizing score (Schmidt and Jason Loewith wrote the libretto, from Elmer Rice’s drama) will find more to admire here — but also some notes of disappointment, in staging flaws and voices that aren’t always up to the music’s demands.
Of course catharsis, too, has its uses. We can’t help but laugh at the script’s pitch-dark wit or fail to see, in light of such current phenomena as the stalled healthcare reform effort, a familiarity in the characters’ white-knuckled grip on an unlivable status quo. Andrew Hungerford’s stark, ingenious production design blinks with binary precision and cranks and creaks like the cruel machinery of commerce itself. In Burnham’s dynamic staging, with most furnishings replaced by objects of containment and torture, the performers literally turn the winches of their own destruction.
It’s not the lead actors’ fault that they’re too likable for the roles they’re assigned. Pavlovich has a natural warmth and vitality at odds with Zero’s disengagement. Aretta Baumgartner, likewise, brings too much grace and vulnerability to the stage as Zero’s harridan of a wife, and her delicate mezzo-soprano lacks the foghorn quality the lengthy opening number requires. So the show starts out in the debit column, musically speaking, though strong voices in the ensemble eventually restore the balance. (Add trigonometry to Alan Patrick Kenny’s long list of talents: There’s a satisfying rigor to his musical direction, though the conductor’s placement at the piano, upstage center between two other players, pulls focus with every change of meter.)
Emotionally, Burnham seems to want to have it both ways. Rice wrote a systemic tragedy, not a personal one. We should sympathize with the characters’ situation. Anything more, and we risk emerging from Adding Machine feeling like the stained and mangled bits of paper spat out by a tabulator in need of repair. One exception: We are meant to open our hearts to Zero’s lonely assistant, Daisy, a role Liz Vosmeier inhabits with a sweet, gangly charm. There’s real sadness in her moment of surrender.
A worthwhile evening for $12? You do the math.
ADDING MACHINE: A MUSICAL runs at Know Theatre of Cincinnati through March 6. Find showtimes, buy tickets and get theater details here.