Less than Zero

Just take a look at his face. The picture of Mr. Zero speaks louder than words, but no louder than the vocal impressions made by the Planet Ant cast in their rendition of Elmer L. Rice’s 1923 play, The Adding Machine. The show opens with Mr. Zero (portrayed fantastically by Robert Grossman), seated like a dummy slumped in a chair. He doesn’t move for a good 10 minutes, while his wife hurls outrageous accusations of incompetence at him.

“I’ve waited 25 years for you to make something of yourself,” she blasts. “I’m sure I’ll be waiting 25 more.”

All the while, Zero’s as stiff as a corpse in the face of the abuse. And he’s still got this washed-out expression on his face. It’s like he’s a robot switched off. And herein lies the theme central to the idea of German expressionist theater, which Rice adapted to the American stage near the end of the industrial revolution: Man vs. machine. Mr. Zero’s spent his entire career as a bean-counter, a career as relentless as Bartleby’s scrivening.

On the day marking Zero’s 25th anniversary tracking dollar sales for some no-name store, the boss decides to express his appreciation by replacing him with a new adding machine, which is much more cost-effective and time-efficient. Zero then expresses his appreciation by offing his boss.

Here we have the death of a man and the birth of a new, parallel narrative in the plot. Rice has been telling the story of one man’s life, and now he begins to chronicle the tale of man as machine.

Zero’s lost his job and committed murder, yet he still can’t stop counting numbers. Even his friends are automatons — there’s Mr. and Mrs. One, Mr. and Mrs. Two, the Threes, the Fours and the Fives. And when Zero’s taken to trial for his murderous act, the jury is comprised of a tree of the identical cardboard cutout heads that exclaim in united autonomy, “guilty” (an amazing prop recalling the graphic nature of expressionist theater in Germany). And upon the death of Zero, a third narrative begins: Machines will take over the world.

Like a needle running through the thread of these related ideas, Rice’s script confronts the absurdity that also governs society’s strict codes of sexual morality. The main characters regret their misplaced affections. Zero never loved his wife and will never be able to couple with the woman he truly loves — a woman he worked with on the job and admittedly treated the worst. This challenges sexual mores that mimic the backward progression of man: Learn to live with what you hate instead of seeking out that which you love. Zero would rather spend his days in hell than give life a go at it again.

Many directors have inappropriately embellished this play in contemporary terms. Ironically, a few have installed their adaptations in the setting of cyberspace landscapes and incorporated digital sound effects to emphasize Rice’s mechanized vision. But director York Griffith has realized that this story warrants no such obscene acts of stimulation; humanity’s backward progression is best presented in each actor’s portrayal. Here, the appalling statements of “total theater” that Rice was attempting are intensified through violent outbursts of body movement and facial contortions — the thematic message is clear through its delivery alone.

Planet Ant’s production sticks firmly to minimalist black-and-white set design. The absurd pathos of the drama is heightened with siren-red lighting sequences and the crash and clamor of metal flatware. It sounds like a raid, jangling us even today.

Rebecca Mazzei is the Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected]
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