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Heavenly voices, hellish lives in ‘Adding Machine: A Musical’

Kelli Harrington (left) is Mrs. Zero and Patrick Du Laney (right) is Mr. Zero, with Jonah D. Winston (center) as Mr. One in The Hypocrites' production of "The Adding Machine." (Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis)

His name is Mr. Zero, and it is a largely accurate accounting of the middle-aged man who bears it. He has been locked in a habit-driven, unhappy marriage with the nagging, emasculating Mrs. Zero for 25 years. And for that same quarter of a century he has faithfully showed up at his accounting job, where a lonesome and available younger woman named Daisy calls out the numbers on receipts he dutifully records in a ledger.

Mr. Zero is, for all intents and purposes, a dead man walking – moving through the motions of life with mechanical passivity. Of course he is not without his little fantasies. Daisy, who he snaps at, is one of them. Being invited into his boss’ office on his 25th work anniversary, and given what he considers a much-deserved promotion, is another. Little does he suspect that when the boss finally calls him in it is to inform him that he is being fired. The company will be using adding machines from now on as they are cheaper in the long run, and more efficient.

It is at this moment in “Adding Machine: A Musical” – the starkly expressionistic chamber opera/musical theater work based on Elmer Rice’s 1923 play, with a searing sung-through score by Joshua Schmidt (music) and lyrics by Schmidt and Jason Loewith – that Mr. Zero reaches his breaking point. But it is not the end of the story. For in this fascinating piece, with its pitch black vision of life, and its Everyman sense of tragedy, we also enter the afterlife. At once less hellish than life on Earth, and more confusing, it is not at all what either Mr. Zero (or most of us) might have envisioned.

Patrick Du Laney is Mr. Zero and Neala Barron is Daisy in The Hypocrites production of "The Adding Machine." (Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis)

Patrick Du Laney is Mr. Zero and Neala Barron is Daisy in The Hypocrites production of “The Adding Machine.” (Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis)

‘THE ADDING MACHINE’
Highly recommended
When: Through May 15
Where: The Hypocrites at
The Den Theatre, 1329 N. Milwaukee
Tickets: $36
Info: http://www.the-hypocrites.com
Run time: 90 minutes
with no intermission

"The Adding MAchine

Patrick Du Laney (seated) as Mr. Zero, with the cast of The Hypocrites’ production of “Adding Machine: A Musical.” (Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis)

When it had its world premiere at the now defunct Next Theatre in Evanston in 2008, “Adding Machine: A Musical” quickly became a momentous event. Director David Cromer’s production headed to Off Broadway, and the following year he would arrive again there with his acclaimed revival of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,”  devised for Chicago’s very still much alive and kicking company, The Hypocrites.

Now, under the entirely fresh, emotionally heated direction of Geoff Button – with outstanding musical direction by Matt Deitchman, rhythmically stylized choreography by Katie Spelman, and a cast totally at one with its warped intensity – The Hypocrites have grabbed hold of this show and made it their own. In many ways it is darker and more unrelenting than I recall the original being, and it grabs hold of you every second of the way with its mixture of pounding pessimism and surprising twists and turns.

Balding and slightly hunched, with a face of flattened expression, Patrick Du Laney is an ideal Mr. Zero, whose depressive, uncomprehending veneer makes you wonder just when and how he will crack and burst into a rage. Kelli Harrington’s  Mrs. Zero is a stunner – from her long opening monologue/aria (a powerfully sung litany of grievances and unfulfilled longings), to her initially poignant visit to her husband in prison that quickly turns horribly sour.

For searing emotional heat and power pipes there is Neala Barron’s Daisy, who morphs from rejected office girl, to Mr. Zero’s fantasy (a seductive torch singer in a red gown), and then back again to a lost soul still hoping for romance. Another tour de force performance comes from Bear Bellinger as Mr. Shrdlu, a fellow prisoner of Mr. Zero, who delivers a long, hypnotic aria in which he details the murder of his mother, and the desire for punishment.

The rest of the ensemble – Andres Enriquez, Jonah D. Winston, Laura McClain, John Taflan and Tyler Brown – add their clarion voices throughout. Special applause goes to Ellen K. Morris, the exceptional onstage pianist/conductor, and her fellow musicians – Nick Graffagna on keyboard and Anthony Scandora on percussion.

Lauren Nigri’s brick-walled set suggests purgatory on Earth, with a whimsical paradise island unfolding at a crucial moment. Mike Durst’s lighting, Izumi Inaba’s costumes and the sound design of Joe Court and Brandon Reed also are exemplary.

The Hypocrites recently announced that two musicals will be part of their 2016-2017 lineup. “Adding Machine” is proof they’ve got the goods.