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THEATER REVIEW: This worker's lament really does add up

Chicago's latest New York theater boom continued Monday

with the import of the "Adding Machine," a darkly exhilarating chamber musical

based on Elmer Rice's 1923 expressionist classic about the dehumanizing

oppression of the machine age.

The show - really more chamber opera than a musical - borrows gleefully

from musical and theatrical sources that go all the way back to Georg B�chner's

19th century working-man's tragedy, "Woyzeck," and the speech-song style of

its 1925 opera by Alban Berg.

And if that sounds a little grim and far away, forget I said it.

"Adding Machine" is grim, of course, but in the drollest possible way. The

intense 90-minute show, which just won a wheelbarrow of awards in Chicago for

Evanston's Next Theatre Company, manages to be true to the soul-wrenching

satire of Rice's original and justly amused by its own mad self.

David Cromer directs a small cast of expert stylists on the tiny stage with

just three musicians - most conspicuously, a pounding pianist - in the pit.

Joel Hatch has an unflinching lack of sentimentality as Mr. Zero, who kills the

boss who fires him after 25 loyal years of adding numbers with lines of other

men with numbers for names and chattering zombies for wives.

Mr. Zero is replaced by technology. Sound familiar?

Librettist Jason Loewith and composer/co-author Joshua Schmidt write dirges

with a Latin dance beat. They spin harrowing internal monologues that also

enjoy the cheap romance of old-movie valentines. Gripes about lousy jobs and

gossip about local sluts get mingled in overarching poetic counterpoint.

Gut-hungry gospel and blue-notes all coexist and contrast with the crashing

chord clusters of 20th century concert music.

The characters are middle-aged drones, deadpan potatohead cogs with

neighborhood accents who arrange in almost balletic tragic-comedic patterns.

Amy Warren brings a vast, wistful embrace to the role of Daisy, Mr. Zero's

lovelorn secretary. Cyrilla Baer makes us loathe the nagging Mrs. Zero as much

as her husband does, yet mourn as she does herself.

The sets, by Takeshi Kata, switch effectively from the stern yellowed

minimalism of this '20s working life to the cartoon-lush garden Elysian where

Mr. Zero goes after his execution. Kristine Knanishu's costumes appropriately

burden the men in plain brown suits and put the women in bosomy, matronly

dresses and flapper hats with sad feathers on top. Clearly, there are no

Roaring '20s for the working stiffs.

The piece threatens to lose its tension in heaven, but not for long.

Several of the producers also backed early downtown hits by Tracy Letts, whose

"August: Osage County" is now Broadway's phenomenon from Chicago's Steppenwolf

Theatre. "Adding Machine" doesn't belong in a big commercial theater. Instead,

this seems charmingly - also brutally - at home downtown.

ADDING MACHINE.

Music by Joshua Schmidt, libretto by Schmidt and Jason Loewith, directed by

David Cromer, based on the Elmer Rice play. Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta

Lane, Manhattan. Tickets $65; Call 212-420-8000. Seen Monday.

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