THE ADDING MACHINE by ELMER RICE
*Selected to tour to the Kennedy Center American College Region II Festival in January of 2015
True to his number Mr. Zero is the lowest rung on the ladder. A true anti-hero, he is a racist, uneducated and maddeningly unaware. He blames everyone else for his problems and never takes responsibility for himself or his actions.
Zero goes through life on automatic pilot. He has no imagination, he doesn't question anything or anyone and he does the same meaningless job, day in and day out for 25 years. Sadly, but also significantly, his first noticeable moment is the murder of his boss, an unusually spontaneous action which occurs after he is fired. Like more of us than would care to admit it, Zero allows society to think for him. He cares more about how he appears to others, rather than his personal self-growth. He takes actions for granted, looking for a formulaic understanding of right and wrong rather than questioning the underlying motivations behind those actions.
In other words, Zero is Everyman. He is the foundation upon which everything else is built. He exists in every one of us. Elmer Rice's numerical metaphor is very revealing: The number zero sits between the negatives and positives, a very powerful position mathematically. Like a coin teetering between heads and tails, Zero has the ability to make a choice. The fact that he continually chooses wrongly is an element of comedy and also a reflection of the cynicism that Rice had with regard to human nature. Zero's inability, literally, to think outside the box, beyond the social and cultural mores of the society in which he lives, and ultimately beyond his fear of how people will judge him, are at the center of this Expressionistic classic.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ABOUT THIS PRODUCTION
Despite the important message within this play, certain elements have become troublesome in the current times. Rice was holding up a mirror to society and showing us its worst elements. Doing this play in a world where critical thinking skills have been disenfranchised and "fake news" has divided us, it is increasingly difficult to rely on the audience to understand the true message within the play. As such, I believe it is the responsibility of the director to make it absolutely clear by taking a side, politically.
In the past, when I did this play, I tried to clarify this by dividing the lines of the "Guide", the "Fixer" and "Lieutenant Charles" between an African American man and a young woman, who were always on stage. These two angel-like beings sometimes masqueraded as "humans", and other times tested Mr. Zero to see if he had understood anything or changed. They seemed to harbor a hope that he could change. They became pivotal to the plot: locking him up, deciding whether he was worthy of living, offering him yet another opportunity to wake up and redeem himself, etc. Thus, when they appeared at the end of the play and let him know that his soul was not worth saving, they were already well known to the audience. Their final moment of frustration with the bureaucracy of the afterlife and their inability to help humans evolve, was thus all the more meaningful. In a sense, they became the true main characters of the play; the eternal force that reminds us of the insignificance of one petty and useless human life.
If I had the opportunity to do this play again, I would go much further: giving Mr Zero a MAGA hat and using right wing slogans to demonstrate his equivalent in America today.