We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
A gray, jumpsuited figure jerks to a throbbing industrial score at the outset of The Adding Machine, stabbing at thin air with a spear tricked up with deco detritus. Further upstage, the shadows of giant gears grind slowly as ramrod-straight workers march mechanically to their tasks as cogs in a huge, stagewide machine. Only one worker resists, and not for long.
Welcome to Dystopia, Elmer Rice style: humankind reduced to the status of spare parts, and the Computer Age still decades in the future. Writing in 1923, Rice was worried about the Industrial Revolution, not its contemporary cybercousin. Still, once Benjamin Fishman’s balletic opening gives way to words, it’s clear the author envisioned a world that would be instantly recognizable to the protagonist of American Beauty—a society peopled by carping wives, insensitive bosses, attractive but unavailable cheerleaders, and violent neighbors.
Like the Kevin Spacey character in Beauty, Rice’s protagonist is a cipher—literally a Mr. Zero (Michael Skinner)—who has lived to regret the conventional choices he’s made in life. Mrs. Zero (Samarra Green), no doubt sweet and adoring when he met her, has become a social-climbing harpy. His dead-end accounting job doesn’t offer him stimulation enough to keep his mind alive—which is probably why he keeps fighting with a comely co-worker, Daisy (Kathleen Coons). And when, on his 25th anniversary with the firm, his boss informs him that he’s being replaced by an adding machine so simple a high-schooler could operate it, something in him just snaps.
The next instant, his employer has a letter opener sticking out of his chest, and Mr. Zero is being executed for murder. And that’s not even the end of his troubles. Still ahead are ghostly chats with a matricidal moralist (Tony Gudell) and lots of fresh opportunities to make bad choices when he gets to the great beyond, where a brusque angel (Kate Norris) lets him know that he’s destined for cogdom in the cosmic machine, just as he was in a mechanized society.
Rice isn’t heading anywhere particularly fresh with this chronicle of proletarian trials and traumas, but he has found some reasonably interesting ways of articulating the journey’s twists. The play’s reputation is based less on what the author was saying than on the fact that he said it with a blend of vernacular dialogue and expressionist symbolism, a combination that evidently proved unsettling for ’20s audiences used to a Broadway diet of well-made melodramas and classics. The New York Times spent a good third of its essentially admiring review lamenting the play’s “coldly and gratuitously vulgar” graveyard sequence, and what it called “the curious, vague blur” that followed. Today, with authors from Rodgers & Hammerstein to Tony Kushner having peopled their second acts with angels, Rice’s imaginative leaps seem comparatively tame.
So it’s useful that Fishman’s staging concentrates less on the ideas the author is laboring so mightily to express than on flashy visuals and aural dissonance. The director says in his program notes that he’s employing “techno-ritual” to illuminate the play, which translates as mechanical movement, masks, and heroic stage groupings. The wordless yet anything-but-silent opening tableau is entirely his invention, and it effectively sets the stage for the stylization that follows. Marianne Meadows’ lighting casts hard-edged shadows on the Metropolis-inspired staircases, ramps, and towers Amy Miskiewicz has provided for the actors to rearrange and clamber over. Lynn Sharp Spears’ chrome masks and accessorized jumpsuits are similarly styled, a blend of industrial chic and deco moderne. And Scott Burgess’ score is heavy on clangs and thumps until the production arrives at an Elysian Fields sequence, for which he pours on the sonic syrup. In short, the evening is all dressed up, though it has nowhere in particular to go.
Skinner makes Mr. Zero pleasantly nebbishy and is adored by Coons’ pleasantly nebbishy Daisy with an ardor that’s decently amusing. They’re the only performers who are permitted to remove their masks prior to the final curtain, which must make connecting with the audience a bit easier. Still, Gudell, who is playing the evening’s only conflicted character, manages to suggest a furrowed brow even with his face hidden. And Norris’ no-nonsense angel punches up the final scene with enough verve that lines about Mr. Zero having “the mark of the slave on him” sound considerably less pretentious than they otherwise might. CP