Director Benjamin Fishman's staging of Elmer Rice's "The Adding Machine" at the Washington Jewish Theatre thrives on mechanical energy--ironically, the very thing Rice's 76-year-old drama decries. Yes, it's bad news if we American drones become slaves to technology (the play in a nutshell), but watching actors acting like machines can be another matter. You can feel the heat coming off the "Adding Machine" performers (all in identical gray jumpers) as they pivot and thrust while Marianne Meadows's lighting design projects spinning cogs on the stage.
Amy Miskiewicz's set blends art deco lines with futuristic sterility and as intimidating an industrial scale as she can fit on the WJT's modest stage. But it's Scott Burgess's driving, clanging techno-industrial score that gives this show a lot of its pulse and atmosphere. The music actually seems to propel the actors, who move in crisp rhythm as they slam ramps, step units and platforms into place. Fishman and Burgess have created their own prologue (a wordless sequence that introduces the show's futuristic milieu and battalion of identically masked, faceless workers), and it so efficiently conveys place and character that you half wonder whether they thought about concocting a ballet.
But the thick style that Fishman lays on Rice's play--which follows the adventures of Mr. Zero, an accountant who asks for a raise, gets fired and kills his boss--also brings the show down every now and then. Fishman's actors wear silver half-masks (by Lynn Sharp Spears, who also did the costumes) as a sign of their characters' eroded individuality, overstating the fact that they accept their place in life as cogs in a machine.
Once the actors start acting inhuman, they're stuck with that strategy. Fishman has his performers illustrate every sentence with a battery of mechanical gestures, so at times they come across like big, stiff puppets. By the time we get to a party scene showing the banality of social conversation (and the virulence of the characters' conformity and ethnic hatred), it's plain the performers have run out of ingenious ways to move.
But they handle Rice's slangy language and soaring speeches beautifully, speaking with the rough-and-tumble energy and breathless pace of 1930s Hollywood gangster movies. As Zero, Michael Skinner is particularly good at this, and he is nearly equaled by Samarra Green (as the nagging Mrs. Zero), Tony Gudell (as a perversely moralistic murderer), Delia Taylor (as a vindictive sexpot) and Kathleen Coons (as Daisy, whose unrequited love for the clod Zero is as touching as it is inexplicable). Best of all is Kate Norris's witty, rapid-fire turn as Lt. Charles, a strange sort of angel who brutally explains it all for Zero.
Zero is a tantalizing character. He's a classic victim (a diligent grunt who works for 25 years as an accountant only to get canned in favor of an adding machine), yet almost everything he says and does is repulsive. Though Fishman has cut Zero's most offensive racist outbursts, he and Skinner don't soft-pedal Zero's ugly personality and chronic small-mindedness. Rice gives no hint in his script of potential redemption; he savagely attacks Zero as a real zero, someone who too eagerly accepts the stupid, soulless life his society manufactures for him.
Fishman, looking for a whiff of heroism, injects opening and closing gestures laden with dissent, as opposed to mere complaint, which is mainly what we hear from the whiny, unimaginative, generally submissive Zero. The impulse is understandable--you can even hear lines in the final scene that might have inspired Fishman in this direction--but the effect doesn't quite wash.
The nice thing about this 90-minute play is that it arrives exactly where you think it will an hour ahead of schedule, then goes to unexpected places. Rice isn't making any new points as he wanders through the cosmos--it may take you a while to realize that--but he expands upon his single theme with sneaky force. The play doesn't wallop you here, but the performance certainly never lets you go.
The Adding Machine, by Elmer Rice. Directed by Benjamin Fishman. With Grady Weatherford, Jon Cohn, Sarah Bragin and Jesse Terrill. At the JCC of Greater Washington through Oct. 24. Call 301-230-3775.