Never have I been afraid of numbers. I loved addition and algebra and equations: tidy rows of familiar digits, concrete answers. And then I saw by Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith, based on the 1923 play Adding Machine by Elmer Rice, and I too began to fear numbers and their inhuman coldness.
Adding Machine tells the story of Mr. Zero (Brendan McNab), who after 25 years of adding numbers as an accountant, loses his job to the new-fangled adding machine. The musical opens on a black curtain with bars of blood red lights with numbers glowing like scratch marks in the background. The scenery is sparse, echoing the dutiful dullness of Mr. Zero’s life.
Mr. Zero walks through the opening scenes in a cloud of passive dismay. In the opening melody Something to Be Proud Of, Mrs. Zero (Amelia Broome) half sings and half yells her protests that her friends see plays and movies, while she cooks and cleans and never gets to go out. As she sings, Mr. Zero drags his feet into the bedroom, slowly gets undressed, and crawls into bed. As her voice screeches out her anger, he rubs his eyes, gets back out of bed, returns his suspenders to his shoulders, tightens his tie, and kisses his wife gently on the cheek. Everything about Mrs. Zero’s performance expounds her rage, as everything about Mr. Zero’s slouching mannerisms express his failure and resignation.
Numbers form the fundamental component of the play: from the characters names, to Mr. Zero’s profession, to the chorus of songs. In Harmony Not Discord, the rhythm of the song builds upon reading the totals off of receipts, slapping the papers to the table, and scratching the pen across the accounting ledger. This creates a halting and mechanical chorus as the noise slowly builds to music. This is then overlaid with the muttering thoughts of the accountants, stray hints such as “I want a beer” and “women make me sick.” The song gains further complexity through Mr. Zero’s fantasies of the company picnic, accidental hand brushes, asking for a promotion to the front office, and big screen kisses. All of these hint at the bleakness of their lives are revealed through a chorus of numbers.
That one song fully expresses the tedium of 25 years of adding numbers, and so, the audience shares in Mr. Zero’s meek excitement about asking for a promotion and jarring disappointment when he learns that a machine can do his job more cheaply, efficiently, and reliably.
So, when Mr. Zero is standing on trial and recanting his 25 years, 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, 1 week of vacation litany that drove him to madness. He clasps his hands the wooden rail and counts to twelve with such calculated anger that his voice echoes in the room and the other actors shirk away from the sound.
Adding Machine, despite the raw anger and disappointment, is comedic in a way that is unexpected and uncomfortably true. Though Mr. Zero spends most of the play zombie-like and confused, at times even jumping a little when the other characters address him, he is shockingly happy in prison. The guard hands him a plate of ham and eggs and he accepts it and eats with such raw joy that the audience can only laugh.
In prison, Mr. Zero meets Shrdlu (John Bambery), who states that he cannot be an optimist, because he believes in God. His life also summarizes into a routine of numbers: 6 days of work and 3 masses on Sunday. For him, crime serves as a break from that routine. He expresses this in a gospel song, one part attrition and one part self-condemnation, with lyrics such as: “you will rot in the fires of hell for eternity,” sung in the joyous, clapping rhythm of gospel.
As the relative happiness both Shrdlu and Mr. Zero experience in jail wanes, and the surroundings again become familiar, the audience is transported to the Elysian Fields. Set designer Susan Zeeman Rogers uses billowy, white shrouds of fabric to create an afterlife that is stark, but tranquil. Even here, Mr. Zero soon becomes unhappy and chooses to return to a solitary room to enthusiastically play with his electrical nemesis, the adding machine.
Adding Machine, at its core, is jarring and mechanical and serves to reveal the quickly souring amusement of new experiences and the drawn-out tedium of daily existence. The lyric “In numbers, the mysteries of life can be revealed” is repeated throughout several songs. In that sense, the musical offers a portrayal of the world that is as black and white and uncaring as digits on a page. Whether using a pencil and ledger book or punching buttons on the adding machine the results for Mr. Zero will always be the same.
Adding Machine runs from March 12th to April 10th, with evening performances Tuesday through Saturday and matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Ticket prices are $30 to $54, with $14 student rush tickets available at the box office, one hour before the performance only. Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, (617) 933-8600. .