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Even in afterlife, he's still a Zero

No one is safe in 'The Adding Machine,' but that keeps Elmer Rice's work fresh and potentially dangerous.

September 19, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA -- Office technology may have changed, but the tedium, alienation and trepidation of ordinary workers remain the same. That's the lesson one takes away from La Jolla Playhouse's bold and bouncy revival of "The Adding Machine," Elmer Rice's 1923 drama about a bookkeeper who's replaced by an appliance after 25 years of loyal service. The production, which opened Sunday under the frisky direction of Daniel Aukin, makes clear that the play's underlying social issues can't be confined to any one era.

Automation, downsizing, outsourcing, call it what you will -- the result is still a nightmare for employees told that their jobs no longer exist. Rice invites us not merely to observe his protagonist's dilemma but to fully experience its fun-house horror.

His playwriting method mixes warts-and-all realism (characters don't so much converse as sling slang at each other) with harrowing expressionism (thoughts are boomingly voiced, and oppressive reality is fiendishly heightened). The surprising effect, for such a downbeat subject, is livelier and more innovative than one might expect.

The story revolves around Mr. Zero (Richard Crawford), a numbers cruncher at a department store who expects a raise but is callously given a month's severance pay instead. Outraged, he stabs his boss (Paul Morgan Stetler) in the chest with a desk object. Quickly captured, tried and sentenced to death for his crime, he ends up in an afterlife that starts out as an eerily serene paradise but turns into a bureaucratic purgatory that Mr. Zero, pathetically enough, feels right at home in.

The author's sympathy for the little guy is not without a good deal of scorn for his slave mentality. Rice loathed capitalism's dehumanizing tendencies, with bottom lines trumping common decency. But he also knew that victims weren't necessarily angels either.

A pile of contradictions, Mr. Zero doesn't just unleash his fury at his heartless boss; he also spews his venom at women, minorities and anyone else who falls below him on the totem pole of privilege. Trapped in a loveless marriage with Mrs. Zero (Jan Leslie Harding), he lusts after anything in a skirt yet fails to notice the romantic longing of his depressed co-worker Daisy (Diana Ruppe), who sits opposite him.

Whenever Rice gets close to embracing poor pitiful Mr. Zero, he ends up shaking him for being such a complicit, narrow-minded creep. This tension remains unresolved -- does the play indict a system, a pipsqueak conformist or both? Yet it's precisely this un-schematic aspect of the work that keeps it fresh and still potentially dangerous after all these decades: No one's safe in Rice's line of fire.

Aukin's stylish production, performed in the round in the flexible Potiker Theatre, is mesmerizing to watch, though the colorful antics sometimes detract from the work's substance. The problem is mostly one of velocity -- scenes rush by at such a frenzied clip that they don't always have a chance to register their full weight. But it's all so spryly renewed that for those who already know this classic it's easy to make allowances. Newcomers, however, might walk away wondering what's so special about Rice's rambunctious romper room.

At least that's how the play occasionally comes off in the Alice-in-Wonderland staging. Andrew Lieberman's set resembles a cross between a boxing ring and a billiards table, decorated with shiny mod furniture sunk in holes and a rotating disc to provide all kinds of merry-go-round effects.

The directorial liberties -- the boss coming out to can Mr. Zero in boxing trunks being one of the more freewheeling -- seem inspired by the playpen atmosphere. Anything can happen here. The middle-aged Mrs. Zero, normally portrayed as an overweight frump, hops on an exercise bike while excoriating her husband. Daisy and Mr. Zero don't just dance in Elysian Fields, they practically shoot a jazz video.

How well do these amusing enhancements communicate the story of a demoralized white-collar drone? Let's put it this way: Aukin was smart to cast an actor who can present so vivid an image of the Zero type. Dressed to resemble an overworked and rapidly aging pencil pusher, Crawford from the outset seems a couple of antacid tablets away from complete and utter corporate misery.

The performances in general are more effective at cutting external figures than revealing internal truth. (Rice was more interested in stereotypical patterns than individual exceptions.) But Crawford's ashen expression hints at something distressingly real. And his scenes with Ruppe's Daisy, the woman who loves him and follows him into the next world, twitch with vestigial emotional life.

Happiness, needless to say, isn't in the cards for Mr. Zero. But what's perhaps most frustrating about his character is his refusal to imagine that things could ever be otherwise. Rice shows us that the toughest prisons to escape are those in which we ourselves incredulously wave off the key.


'The Adding Machine'

Where: La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Oct. 7

Price: $28 to $60

Contact: (858) 550-1010

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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