The Adding Machine: Santa Monica Rep, 1/8/11

11 01 2011

The westside has a talented new theater company in Santa Monica Rep, which presented its third staged playreading at Santa Monica Public Library this past weekend. Founded by Eric Bloom, Jen Bloom, and Sarah Gurfield, Santa Monica Rep is gaining an intelligent and inquisitive company of actors and a devoted audience following, in evidence at their most recent performance of Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine.

Working with scripts in hand, limited rehearsal time (those darned Equity rules), and a simple library auditorium setting, The Adding Machine showcased this group’s professional promise, starting with the choice of this all-too-relevant 1923 expressionist play. After twenty-five years working for the same company, Mr. Zero is fired; his boss has decided to replace trusty employees with the more time- and cost-efficient adding machines. In our own age of increasing computerization and high unemployment rates, Mr. Zero’s plight is undeniably familiar – perhaps even personally resonant for some audience members at the free reading. Yet Mr. Zero struggles to imagine a life outside the larger societal machine: numbers, quantities, economics are his life. He endlessly fails to accept the promises of happiness and love in a life outside the strictures of work and marriage.

The cast consistently impresses with a dynamic command of Elmer Rice’s language. As Mrs. Zero (Betsy Zajko) gossips and nags her husband in a pesky New York accent, Mr. Zero (Jason Rennie) embodies a perfect slave to the machine: staring into space with no thought in his mind other than the figures, the rules, the strictures he has been taught. During his interior monologues at the office, Zero twitches uncomfortably as he dreams of his coworker Daisy – the quirky and endearing Lordan Napoli. Yet neither of them has the nerve (at least in life) to share their feelings. Along with Napoli, John Herzog, Matt Henerson, Dennis Richardson, Shana Harris, and Clarke Wolfe tackle several roles throughout the reading – each clearly delineated by a different voice and physicality. The awkward dinner party is a particular treat, with only these 6 actors embodying 12 different roles.

Poised to the side of the stage, Sarah Gurfield reads stage directions until – in a clever directorial move by Eric Bloom – she is replaced halfway through the show by a machine. Such touches as the takeover by a computerized voice draw continual attention to The Adding Machine‘s contemporary relevance. Bloom also makes full use of this potentially sterile auditorium space; a handicapped ramp leading up to stage becomes the jury box, for instance. Placement of bodies and music stands evokes every necessary setting in the audience’s mind. One can only imagine how rich a fully staged, off-book production could be.

But the potential and promise of Santa Monica Rep is clearly in the people, not the spectacle or (dare I say) the machinery of a full production. The talent, skill, dedication, and “big questions” of this company are already in full view. The talkback following the play was perhaps the most enriching I have ever attended. Jen Bloom began not by taking questions for the creative team and actors, but by asking the audience a question. This immediately flipped the traditional talkback experience, requiring the audience to more fully engage with the piece: not only to ask questions, but to fumble for the answers. The ensuing discussion illuminated just how deeply the company had thought about the play, as well as how resonant their presentation had been for the audience. In only 15 hours rehearsal time, Eric Bloom and his actors had delved into the deep and philosophical questions arising from Rice’s play: “Is Happiness attainable? What does happiness look like? Why is it so elusive sometimes?” And the audience rejoined the actors’ observations with their own philosophies and personal stories of “having the nerve” to pursue a different lifestyle, in defiance of the societal machine.

Among the audience’s questions was a simple, “What can we do for you?” (A question every theater company wants to hear!) Santa Monica Rep is talented group in need of a space, financial support, and a dedicated following as they take their next steps in founding a professional company on the westside. I may not have a vacant theater or even spare change to donate (I am a grad student after all!), but a blog post? That I can do. Santa Monica Rep’s staged reading of The Adding Machine resonated with me in theatrical craft and intellectual depth. In fact, I found the actors’ double-consciousness – reading from the script and acting the character – to be a potent commentary on the scriptedness of life. After only a few minutes, their scripts are naturalized, normalized, unquestioned by the audience. Is there any choice other than to read from the script? To follow the stage directions? To be a slave to the machine?

For a brave new theater company, the answer is certainly: Yes.

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