The best of so-called "classic" literature surprises with its freshness: Tolstoy was a gossip, Melville was funny. Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine was written in 1923, but there's nothing dated about it—as imagined by Theatre Vertigo, under the direction of Jane Geesman, The Adding Machine's dark, pointed parable about the dangers of conformity is one of the few can't-miss shows of the 2010/2011 season.
A thumbnail plot description: On the anniversary of his 25th year of employment, Mr. Zero (Gary Norman), instead of receiving the raise he's hoping for, is summarily fired. The humiliation of being replaced by a machine that "a high school girl" could operate pushes Zero over the edge: He kills his boss, and is executed for his crime. And... that's where the first act ends. Act 2 follows Mr. Zero to a mysterious underworld, as he struggles to make sense of his life and death.
Reducing The Adding Machine's relevance to some easy parallel to the digital age is tempting, but it would do the show a disservice. Rice's script is less about the specific impact of mechanization than about the soul-destroying impact of conformity and routine (and, yes, capitalism too)—how small-mindedness and fear engender unhappiness, how greed and empty promises of a better life keep workers slaving.
As Mr. Zero, Gary Norman walks an assured line between pitiable and just plain reprehensible. His unhappiness is evident—the strident monologue delivered by his wife (Jane Fellows) in the opening scene makes it clear that both domestic and professional satisfaction elude him. The question The Adding Machine poses to both Zero and its audience, then, is how responsible Zero is for his own unhappiness. Is he constrained by societal and economic forces, or by his own craven heart? If he's offered a way out, would he even know how to take it?
The Adding Machine is expertly directed and designed, down to the subtly grotesque masks worn by most of the cast. Director Jane Geesman has a clear vision, a great script, and the cast and crew to pull it off. Pull it off they do.