Too serious ’Adding Machine’ misses the point

for The Brooklyn Paper

Most of us today would be lost without our cell phones, laptops and Palm Pilots. But back in 1923, when playwright Elmer Rice wrote "The Adding Machine," the machine age was still in its infancy. Nevertheless, Rice seems to have had an excellent idea of what lay in store for humankind.

In "The Adding Machine," now at The Impact Theatre, directed by Ron Parella, Mr. Zero (Dan McHenry) loses his job as a number cruncher when his employer (John Menchion) replaces him with an adding machine.

Enraged at the futility of his life - he has a nagging wife (Harriet Parker Mann) and a surly, loveless fellow-employee, Daisy Devore (Maia Star McCann) - Zero kills his boss and then surrenders to police. He turns himself and his bloodstained collar over to the policeman who appears at his door in the middle of a party he and his wife throw for the automatons Mr. and Mrs. One, Two, Three, Four, Five and Six. (They later become the jury at his trial.)

Clearly "The Adding Machine" is a morality play about dehumanization in 20th-century society. It uses untraditional, impressionistic techniques to make its point. But it also uses biting satire that is funny in the same way as the still-popular 1950s TV show, "The Honeymooners."

Zero is an Ed Norton-like figure pummeled by events he cannot understand, an average Joe whose limited intelligence leaves him ill-equipped to fathom how and why he is victimized and powerless to change his life. But while Carney and the whole gang on "The Honeymooners" had split-second timing, abundant energy and a natural sense of the ridiculous, the cast and director here make even Rice’s sparkling dialogue fall as flat as a deflated balloon.

In fact, Rice’s writing is so superb that even with the glacial pace and one-dimensional acting of the current production, this reviewer (who had never before seen or read the play) turned to her companion after 10 minutes and remarked, "I think it’s supposed to be funny."

A shot of adrenaline might have helped the show (as would a stage manager who knows how to work a light board, scenery that doesn’t look like it was found on the street and a stage floor that doesn’t seem to display the detritus of previous productions), but even more, the play could have been helped by a director and cast who understood that "The Adding Machine" is indeed, as it says in the program notes, "a comedic drama."

McHenry, who is a competent actor, might have delivered a convincing performance with better direction and better support from the other actors; and Mann would have been much improved if she’d deviated from her droning monotone of complaints to show other emotions - jealousy, longing and, yes, happiness. It is the juxtaposition of conflicting emotions within and between the characters that should make this play funny.

As for McCann, she’s so hopelessly miscast (no amount of fake gray can make this young and attractive actress look like a dowdy woman approaching middle-age), there’s nothing much she could have done to make her character stage-worthy.

It’s really a shame The Impact Theater did such a poor job with the play. "The Adding Machine" is one of several that Rice (a lawyer-turned-playwright) wrote in the service of liberal causes and against oppression and prejudice - casual cruelty ("Street Scene"), poverty ("We the People") and Nazi fascism ("Judgment Day").

Unfortunately, the questions Rice asked have not been answered, the problems he posed not solved and the injustices he exposed not resolved. In his lifetime, Rice’s views brought him into conflict with the likes of Joseph McCarthy and government censors. But he didn’t flinch. When the independence of his work with the Federal Theatre Project was threatened, he resigned his administrative post, and when he disagreed with some of the positions and the control of the Theatre Guild, he founded the Playwrights’ Company with four other playwrights - Robert Sherwood, S. N. Behrman, Sidney Howard and Maxwell Anderson.

Surely Rice’s work deserves better treatment than is given in this sloppy, unfocussed production.

The Impact Theatre’s production of "The Adding Machine" plays through July 25, Thursday through Saturday, at 8 pm, and Sunday, at 3 pm. Tickets are $15 adults, $12 students and seniors. The Impact Theatre is located at 190 Underhill Ave. at Sterling Place in Prospect Heights. For reservations, call (718) 390-7163.

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