Ethnic Theater - Jewish
"The Adding Machine"
Minetta Lane Theatre, Manhattan
Elmer Rice (nee Reizenstein) has returned to New York in an explosive new production. This Jewish-American playwright, who was as popular in his day as Eugene O’Neill or Clifford Odets, has all but faded into oblivion. Best known in the 20s and 30s for his voluminous output and his experimentation with theatrical styles, most of his works have disappeared from the stage. Yet his “Street Scene” (a Pulitzer Prize-winner), his “Counsellor-at-Law,” and “The Adding Machine” still surface from time to time.
And now “The Adding Machine” returns in a new form. Adapted and turned into a musical, it has opened off-Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theatre. And whatever the flaws of the play itself, the show gives off a high-charge jolt of electricity. Director David Cromer and set designer Takeshi Kata make the most of Rice’s expressionistic piece, finding innovative, striking ways to stage the story.
From its opening moment, as Mr. and Mrs. Zero lie in bed, we viewers are shaken to the core. This bed is not flat on the stage, as one would expect, but perpendicular against a black backdrop. With this surreal view of the marital bed, we are pulled into a surreal experience. Every early scene is brilliantly staged, with stark lighting (Keith Parham), black backdrops, and hilarious costuming (Kristine Knanishu). Only in the after-life, do soft lighting and a flower-strewn stage take over. The piece is further enhanced by Joshua Schmidt’s original score and the libretto written with Jason Loewith. “The Adding Machine” as a sung-through piece with its haunting, minor-key music, is closer to opera than musical comedy.
Yet this new version stays faithful to Rice’s original story. Mr. Zero is a brow-beaten bureaucrat, browbeaten at work and at home. His wife is a shrew, his boss an unfeeling slave-master (despite “25 years and never missed a day”), his life a dreary zero (as indicated by his name). Finally, driven over the top, he stabs his boss with a bill-file and is subsequently executed for murder. Essentially a polemical piece, “Adding Machine” hammers away at the modern world of technology, in which men have become selfless, mindless automatons. Eerily, Rice forecasts today’s world of technology.
“The Adding Machine” is strongest in the first half, in which Zero’s experiences, at home and at work, play out with biting humor and poignancy (thanks to its gifted cast, headed by Joel Hatch and Cyrilla Baer). But once Zero dies and goes to the next world, Rice’s message is far muddier. Rice suggests that we mortals are incapable of happiness, that we return to this world again and again, always repeating the same, hopeless, mindless existence. Unfortunately, the story ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.
Not so the musical. In all, this “Adding Machine” must be cherished for its daring, innovative staging---a visionary approach which Elmer Rice himself would have appreciated.
-- Irene Backalenick
Apr. 29, 2008