Eighty-four years on, Elmer Rice continues to harangue about the pitifulness of the human condition in “The Adding Machine,” although Daniel Aukin’s efficiently theatrical revival at La Jolla Playhouse is less predictably sour than one might expect. Theatergoers often apply the adjective “interesting” pejoratively or dismissively, but this production truly is interesting, and provocative as well within the limits of the dour, deterministic text.
As the show opens, the central recess in Andrew Lieberman’s Whack-a-Mole set contains a revolving orange disk on which are mounted a potted plant, Barcalounger and a portly, mustachioed occupant. Meet Everyman, aka Mr. Zero (Richard Crawford): a mild-mannered nonentity, profane, racist and a bit of a pervert. He’ll be celebrating his 25th anniversary as a department-store bookkeeper by murdering his boss upon learning of his replacement (by a machine, natch). It’s the chair for Zero: same Barcalounger, this time dialed to French-fry.
Evening’s first two-thirds detail the miseries of Zero’s zero life, their tiresome familiarity papered over by Aukin’s prodigious theatrical trickery. Muttered opening rant of malcontent Mrs. Zero (Jan Leslie Harding) is sent over the P.A. system, prompting us to wonder why Zero didn’t pop her first. Gathering of neighborhood Babbitts and bigots — American self-hatred at its ripest — is performed robotically.
A half-hostile, half-hopeful encounter at work between Zero and colleague Daisy (Diana Ruppe) gets an intriguing “Strange Interlude” spin by having their secret fascinations with each other amplified while their everyday sniping is heard normally.
Upon Zero’s execution, Aukin pulls off a scenic coup that — like the best theatrical coups — is simple yet utterly evocative, transforming space into the Elysian Fields, all pink, purple and feathery. In the afterlife, Zero meets Shrdlu (Joshua Everett Johnson, as if in an early sketch for Norman Bates), who seeks out more severe punishment for slicing his mom’s throat. Better still, Daisy seeks out Zero, having offed herself shortly after he passed on.
A romantic interlude for all eternity seems in the cards but for Zero’s self-sabotaging nature. Unwilling to join any club, even a heavenly one, that would want him for a member, he dashes out to find himself caught in a sort of reverse Karmic cycle. Two functionaries spell out the dismal facts of life and send him back to Earth slightly more stupid than before (if possible). The end. Or is it the beginning?
There’s something ineffably distasteful about a scribe in his lofty perch defining an entire class of other people (not himself, though) as dehumanized, and a measure of condescension is detectable in the crude behavior and dese-dem-dose accents imposed on La Jolla’s cast. Rice’s banalities and redundant rhythms soon grate, especially on the part of the rarely silent Crawford; there’s only so much variety one thesp can instill when language is so suffocating.
It’s also ironic that so much technology — lights, hydraulics, complex sound effects — should be applied to an indictment of technology’s malignity, though to Aukin’s credit, the machine-age satire, which we’ve seen again and again since “A nous la liberte” and “Modern Times,” isn’t overdone. Helmer is wise to skew play to a broader portrait of alienated modern man.
Nevertheless, show’s most memorable moment — and fond of the play or not, this revival does tend to reverberate in the mind — is invested with neither social critique, condescension nor irony.
As Zero and Daisy warm to each other at last, the Potiker Theater is suddenly filled by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters in Johnny Mercer’s infectious “Ac-cen-tu-ate the Positive,” one of those songs that could make a cat laugh. Our smiles broaden as Mr. Cellophane and his dizzy dame begin to dance. Dance? They spin, kick, prance, do cartwheels, affirming life for all time (literally). Rice almost never accentuated the positive, but Aukin sure knows how to send us to heaven.