Adding Machine is a most unlikely musical hit. The source material, Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine, is a cornerstone of American Expressionism, but the dark-toned 1923 play does not lend itself to a toe-tapping good time, nor does this adaptation, which concedes nothing to audience expectations. The synthesizer-driven score by Joshua Schmidt, and book by Schmidt and Jason Loewith (also artistic director), are flavorful but pungent, with bits of the blues, Stravinsky, and the great American songbook interwoven; the characters are flawed, unglamorous, messily human, and superbly played. It is the kind of show that could only come from dirt-under-the-fingernails Chicagoland.

Adding Machine was first performed in winter 2007 at the tiny Next Theatre in Evanston, IL. Strongly received there, it found a second home Off Broadway in February at the Minetta Lane Theatre. The production proved a critics' darling in New York, reaping, among other honors, nine Drama Desk nominations, and winning the Best Musical award from the Lucille Lortels and the Outer Critics Circle. The design, by turns acrid and satiric, and always beautifully rendered, was also much praised, and won lighting designer Keith Parham a Lortel and an Obie Award and set designer Takeshi Kata an Obie. Parham and costume designer Kristine Knanishu came in from Chicago; new for New York were Kata, who adapted and augmented Mathew J. York's original set design; sound designer Tony Smolenski IV, stepping in for Schmidt and Jeff Dublinske on the audio; and Peter Flaherty, whose projections add a final relentless flourish to the 90-minute piece.

Directed by David Cromer, Adding Machine is the story of Mr. Zero (Joel Hatch), an accountant at a faceless concern in a featureless city. As the pitiless dawn of our automated age begins, Zero learns that, after 25 years of service, he is to be replaced by an adding machine. At a subsequent dinner party, he calmly informs the shrill Mrs. Zero (Cyrilla Baer) that he has killed his boss in retaliation. (In a typically subtle touch, all we see of this ghastly act is a trickle of blood.) Zero is executed for the crime and awakens in Elysian Fields, where he contemplates a brighter future for himself and his lovelorn colleague, Daisy (Amy Warren), who has committed suicide to be with him. But he finds that, in the afterlife, there is a steep price to be paid for living so ploddingly and sheep-like on Earth.

There is nothing plodding about this design, which is illuminated through a film noir-like haze. “Led by David, we stuck to our guns and weren't too concerned about how it might be perceived, which, as we hoped, resulted in something interesting,” Kata says. The scenes come at you from odd angles, beginning at the start, with Mr. and Mrs. Zero trussed to their vertically positioned bed like prisoners. Elysian Fields, framed by its brightly flowered trellises, is visual relief from the acrid and claustrophobic opening segments where, for example, Parham's lighting plays sickly off the green eyeshades of Mr. Zero's fellow accountants — “a happy accident, one we had to have in once we saw it,” the LD says. This comfort zone gives way to the monstrous machine that corners Mr. Zero and Daisy, and consumes them in a fearsome display of conveyor belt-styled video.

While some of these elements might seem overwhelming, they are, in fact, minimalist and kept in a rigorous balance. Working in the confines of Next, with few resources, “forced us to make simple choices, the right choices, from David's ideas. He had such a strong concept of what the show was,” Parham says.

Kata had worked with Cromer on the Steppenwolf production Orson's Shadow, which played New York in 2005. “I know Josh too but couldn't do Adding Machine at Next, but we kept in touch. I looked at a video of the show, and we determined what we liked and didn't like. The first five scenes up to Elysian Fields were pretty great, visually, and very fluidly structured. ‘The basement of the world,’ with visible lights and ducts was what Kristine said the look was. We fine-tuned it. What we had to determine was what Elysian Fields was and what happens with the machine.”

In Evanston, a moving wall that is a key part of the design turned around to reveal a lightbox, which contained Elysian Fields. “It was a great idea, but it felt too much like a background and not an environment,” Kata says. “Ours is more organic and not rectangular in shape, as it had been. The frame is small, and the projection screen we put in upstages it, so it suggests an expanse beyond what you can see.”

Parham, who says that the “financial seams” were showing by the time the piece got to Elysian Fields in Evanston, worked more practicals into the show, to distinguish between its worlds. “The light sources are within the office and in the prison space, with individual bulbs in each cell,” says Kata, who also credits props designer Michelle Spadaro for the details that give the set pieces their reality. “When we expand into Elysian Fields and then the machine, we wanted them outside the space.” The soul-recycling machine is meant to be all-encompassing. “It's an ancient thing that's been there a long, long time, and it feels like it continues outside the architecture of the theatre. We pushed the light sources as far offstage as possible, without seeing the actual walls of the theatre themselves.”

Kata's designs were reinforced by projections devised by Brooklyn-based Flaherty, who had worked with the designer and Schmidt before. He also added earth-toned ethereal formations to the Elysian Fields sequence, which Cromer felt needed a bit of movement. “Elysian Fields is a kind of self-imagined heaven that can change at a moment's notice,” Flaherty says. “The video is housed inside a fabrique, with its floral decorations and arch-like panels that are fit in front of them. I created a lot more video than I actually used; we took it down to this essential bucolic moment, which doesn't take away from the performances. It sits in stark contrast to the more machine-like and cacophonic sounds and images of the rest of the show.”

No video is used for the first two-thirds of the production. Elysian Fields opens the door to projection in a self-contained way, and then the machine bursts through, all in the last 20 or so minutes. “At the very end, it explodes, and the video extends the space in the relatively shallow theatre, creating height and width and depth, and motion. Elysian Fields is all about flowers and a palette; the machine is more about texture,” Flaherty says. “The show is mostly about a dark stage and haze and a few strong, sharp shafts of light, and the 3D animation fits with that notion. I tried projecting on a screen from the front, but that didn't work; we needed to keep the dark, high-contrast ratio there. We needed some sort of medium-to-light-colored material for the detail to show up, so we hung a black scrim in front of the screen. That's a common technique for rear projection, to cut down the plasticity and reflectivity of a gray RP screen. Using it the way we did creates a kind of interference pattern, because of the projector's pixel grid and the holes in the scrim. It's not a full moiré pattern, but it has depth. It solved the contrast ratio problem, and it has a strange sensibility about it.”

Parham's lighting is also unique in its fashion. His shop order for New York was small, but the sizable blanket of haze called for was a concern. “It's frightening that there's no frontlight — just sidelight and downlight — and so much haze in this show. The haze is practically architectural in nature, like a scenic element. It's like we're sculpting the space with lighting in the air. I thought our producers in New York would say, ‘No way, we can't run this much haze.’ But working with the MDG unit, we figured out how much we needed to use, running a low-level loop and no more. When the actors' voices got a little sore two or three weeks in, we cut it down, so it became a non-issue.”

Parham says that Cromer “wanted the lighting in the first five scenes to have an Expressionist feel, so we looked at a lot of images from that time period. The wall that rolls around allowing people to disappear was his idea — and that required the haze. The wall is green, sweaty, and ugly, and I decided to embrace that in the palette. The environment is constantly stepping down on these characters, and the color and use of downlight mirrors that. The sidelight helped us get more light into the Next space, and we kept finding looks for it that really worked. Nothing was talked about very specifically until we got into tech, took a pass at it, and then did it again.”

Smolenski's participation in the show was, in part, a matter of right place, right time. “They needed a system, and I had just put one together for the Minetta Lane's previous show, the musical Walmartopia!” he says. “We kept the bulk of the PA up, which I assume saved some money.” To familiarize himself, he used a recording of the show that Schmidt had made and mixed, using some of the smaller sound effects from Next but creating, for example, a fan noise and fluorescent lighting hums for the office scene. “For the bulk of the show, the mandate was, ‘We want to hear the words, but not the microphones,’ and there was a lot of working with Josh's synthesizer orchestrations to get the vocals up over them during tech, a delicate but successful process,” the sound designer says. “Also, there's that first number where Mrs. Zero must sound abrasive without completely alienating the audience. I mostly work on musicals, but this one was so different due to the score.”

The console is a DigiDesign Profile. “We played it straight, with very little reverb in the show,” Smolenski says. “We had some fun tools at our disposal when we did stuff with the offstage singing, like the surrounds that kick in when you hear the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ that greet Mr. Zero and Daisy dancing in Elysian Fields. As for the machine sounds, David would send me notes like ‘Less squishy, more crunchy,’” the designer laughs.

Unlike the luckless Mr. Zero, “We all started with good choices, and they kept getting stronger and stronger, in Evanston and New York,” Parham concludes. Adding Machine closed July 20, but regional and European productions are planned.

ADDING MACHINE

CREDIT AND EQUIPMENT LIST

DESIGN TEAM

Scenic Designer: Takeshi Kata

Lighting Designer: Keith Parham

Sound Designer: Tony Smolenski IV

Costume Designer: Kristine Knanishu

Video Designer: Peter Flaherty

VENDORS

Scenery: Daedalus Design and Production/James Robertson, Pierre Kraitsowits

Lighting Equipment: Big Apple Lights

Sound Equipment: Masque Sound

Video Equipment: Sound Associates

SCENIC STAFF

Assistant Scenic Designer: Valerie Green

Assistant: Andrew Boyce

LIGHTING STAFF

Master Electrician: Tom Dyer

SOUND STAFF

Associate Sound Designer: Drew Levy

Sound Engineer: Cassy Givens

VIDEO STAFF

Video Associate/Programmer: Dustin O'Neill

3D Animation Specialist: Ed Purver

LIGHTING EQUIPMENT

15 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal 19°

50 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal 26°

27 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal 36°

3 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal 10°

1 90° Selecon MSR Ellipsoidal

25 MFL PAR64

15 Strand Bambino 2kW Fresnel

11 Birdies

1 12V MR16

2 MDG Hazer

3 Look Solutions Viper Fogger

15 Wybron Coloram II 10" Color Changer

24 Wybron Coloram II 7.5" Color Changer

1 Rosco Infinity

PARTIAL SOUND EQUIPMENT

Console: DigiDesign Profile

Playback: Stage Research SFX

VIDEO EQUIPMENT

Dataton Watchout System

1 Barco SLM R12+ Performer Projector

1 Barco iD R600+ Projector