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The Rise of "Machine"

Date: Jun 19, 2008


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It's a line a talented actor can hope to hear a number of times in a career, typically in the heat of excitement after a dazzling performance: "I'm gonna write a show for you."

Less common, alas, is the follow-up call.

"I was doing a cabaret show at a place called Martyrs, and Josh Schmidt happened to catch it," says Amy Warren, a Chicago-based actor and singer who's currently starring in the hit Off-Broadway musical Adding Machine (at the Minetta Lane through Aug. 31), with music by Schmidt. "He came up afterward and said, ‘I'm gonna write a musical for you,' and I said, ‘Oh, OK.' Some time passed--quite a bit of time, actually--and then he called and said, ‘We're doing a workshop at the Next Theatre.' "

The score Schmidt presented to Warren--whose credits till then had been mostly either singing rock and pop music or acting in meaty dramas and comedies, but never doing both in the same production--was unlike anything she'd ever heard. It was so off the beaten track, in fact, that Warren didn't think she was up to it.

"When I first heard the music I was supposed to sing in Adding Machine, I said to Josh, ‘I can't sing that. It's too high for me. You should maybe get a musical theatre person,' " Warren recalls with a laugh. "And Josh said, ‘Shut up, I know you can sing it, so sing it!' "

It wasn't just the sound of Schmidt's harsh, arresting music that was daunting, but its content and intent. In adapting Elmer Rice's expressionistic 1923 play about the mechanizing, dehumanizing toll of contemporary post-industrial society, Schmidt and co-librettist Jason Loewith, later joined by director David Cromer, aimed for a forbiddingly pitch-black tone true to Rice's bleak, mordant vision. Warren plays Daisy, the sad-eyed assistant of the play's anti-hero, a narrow-minded numbers clerk named Mr. Zero.

"Daisy has been pining away for this jerk for a million years," Warren says of her character's unrequited affection for the play's pointedly unsympathetic lead. "She's spent her life wishing this guy would take notice of her. They have these horrible interactions, these terrible exchanges at work--then she goes home and pines for him."

That sure doesn't sound like a match made in heaven--and this unfortunate couple goes on to drive this point home, in a brief, unsatisfying clinch in the afterlife.

"They're like awkward teenagers--they can't even touch each other properly," Warren says of Daisy and Zero's eventual rendezvous.

Why can't such two desperately needy people relate? Warren blames their lack of passion in part on their soul-draining jobs.

"These characters are literally in the machine--they don't have a lot of passion outside the workplace, or in it," Warren comments. She says understands the numbing effect of drone-like work: "I've worked in offices. You allow yourself to just go to sleep for a while. You almost find it comforting to just go in and do your little thing. I had one job where I had to sit there with the ledgers and figure out who had paid the bills and who hadn't; I put squiggly line at the end of the column if they hadn't paid, and a checkmark if they had. So I would sit there all day makin' squiggly lines."

The poignancy of Rice's vision, she says, is that its characters "don't know they're in the machine. Most people I know who do temp jobs know they're part of the machine, and they know it's not going to last forever. They say, 'I'm just doing it for six months more.' The people in Adding Machine don't even think about leaving.

"One thing I love about the original Rice play that I think we've maintained is the smallness of the ambitions: Mrs. Zero's dream is go downtown to see a movie in its first run rather than waiting for it come uptown. Mr. Zero's ambition is to be left alone, like a lot of guys I know his age."

By those standards, Daisy's dreams are almost extravagant.

"She wants to be loved, and once in her life to be kissed for real," Warren says. "Her main fantasy is how the actresses are kissed in the movies."

If Warren ever harbored any fantasies of success on the New York stage, they could hardly be closer to her reality in the six months or so. Adding Machine has been a critical and commercial smash, Warren has landed a New York agent and she plans to relocate with her husband and dog as soon as she can. It's been a long journey from that cabaret at Martyrs, but Warren says that she and her co-star, Joel Hatch--who plays Zero with an stunningly implacable blankness--still recall the show's first rehearsal in Chicago some years ago.

"I knew it was something special, but I didn't know it was going to be this ginormous thing," Warren marvels. "The music and the whole show could be described as challenging. But I remember walking out of that first rehearsal saying, 'This is the most amazing thing.' "

Indeed, this out-of-the-box Machine has proved to be a little engine that could, adding up to one of New York's hottest tickets.

Click here for more information about Adding Machine.