The Only Place You Can Go Is Down: The Adding Machine

Logan West as Mr. Zero in The Great Office. Photo courtesy UW Drama.

I love student drama.

When I first started writing about theater for KCMU radio, no one in town would touch it. There was The Daily, who would review University of Washington productions every so often, and that was all. As I worked for a station on a university campus, I considered it my duty to write about student drama, but duty wasn’t my only reason. My main reason was that student drama offers a clear view of what is actually happening in local theater at large. Professional theaters could and generally did hide many of their conceptual problems behind a gauze of technique. By contrast, student productions tend to be direct, raw, honest, so flaws are more patent. But so are the strengths.

When I saw that the University of Washington Drama folks were doing Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine, I thought that it would offer a window into how Seattle theaters are dealing with the reality of technology that disrupts their own civic culture as well as individual lives. Whatever the students are thinking, after all, is generally what the so-called professionals are also thinking but likely avoiding. Rice’s play is an excellent lens for viewing such problems.

Director Ryan Guzzo Purcell and the cast have incorporated ChatGPT prompts into their production in an attempt to treat LLM/AI as the new “adding machine.” The results are mixed, but I think this is primarily because they find themselves still having an already-written play to do. That play offers resistance to AI input not because it is written by a human but rather because it is not about machines. Despite its titular importance, the adding machine that displaces (not replaces) Mr. Zero never even appears on the stage: it only appears in Scene Seven’s evocation of Purgatorio, and in fact Mr. Zero in his purgatory is the one operating it. The point here should be obvious: machines need people. But what kind of people?

I think Elmer Rice’s answer is “gullible people.” People who buy into the mythology of hard work. People who don’t want to think. People who want certainty and order. People who envy. People who dream without action. People who deny freedoms to others that they want themselves. Mr. Zero is all these people.

The difficulty of staging The Adding Machine as an anti-capitalist tale about displaced workers is that as an audience member I am not on Mr. Zero’s side. He is a dolt, a bigot, a sexist, a prude, and a self-absorbed knucklehead. I feel a kind of pathos for Mr. Zero at best but not a shred of sympathy. People like Mr. Zero get replaced by the new Mr. Zero Version 2.0 all the time because they are in fact interchangeable. The playwright makes this clear. This is not about a play about displaced workers or socialism or any other such loftiness. This is a play about how people like Mr. Zero come to be and more importantly how they come to stay.

To illustrate this journey of the soul, Elmer Rice evokes another famous play about the journey of the soul from August Strindberg. The Adding Machine has almost the exact same structure as Strindberg’s A Dream Play. But where Strindberg’s play goes down and then back up in a kind of V-shape, Rice’s play only goes down. Strindberg’s play is 14 scenes following characters who all seem to be the same faceless man; Rice’s play is 7 scenes about a man with a face but nothing else. Even Mr. Zero’s speech in Scene 7 recalls the final scene in Strindberg.

     ZERO [Proudly]: I ain’t missed a day, not an hour, not a minute. Look at all I got done. [He points to the maze of paper.]
CHARLES: It’s time to quit.
ZERO: Quit? Whaddye mean quit? I ain’t goin’ to quit!


     CHRISTINE   : I paste, I paste.
THE DAUGHTER: [Pale and emaciated, sits by the stove] You shut out all
the air. I choke!
CHRISTINE : Now there is only one little crack left.
THE DAUGHTER: Air, air— I cannot breathe!
CHRISTINE : I paste, I paste— until they cannot breathe.

One of the joys of the UW production is that it is so straightforward that the play becomes very clear in its message. There is a certain amount of spectacle here, and the play demands it. But the real joy comes from watching the wonderful UW undergraduate actors throw themselves into the mixer. At moments it feels very much like a laboratory work — but I’m a chemist, so that still interests me. The AI prompts add a certain bit of semi-randomness to which the actors must still react, so everyone is at attention. It is nice to see actors actually present, instead of everything feeling sterile.

And what a fine group of actors! Logan West’s Mr. Zero provides a fine anchor for all the other performances. Mx. West’s restraint never feels mechanical. Instead it illuminates the character and that strangely un-dramatic quality that Mr. Zero has of being a meat machine with no future except to devolve. As Mr. Zero departs through the floor on his way to chase hope, I felt a smiling admiration for the way Mx. West handled that sense of mindless optimism as a part of Fate itself.

I also appreciated Bailey Moroson as Mrs. Zero. Her role is extremely difficult not just technically — Mrs. Zero’s opening monologue is a painful burden, like a short Harold Pinter play wrapped into one speech the actor must go alone — but also emotionally. Ms. Moroson does a very fine job of keeping Mrs. Zero from becoming a completely insufferable virago by allowing a subtle desperation to color her speech. At the same time, I think she also understands that this character is a type, and a contrast to the other female characters.

One of the deft touches of Elmer Rice’s script is that the female characters who work have names, while the male characters do not. Mrs. Zero is the exception not because she doesn’t work and not because she is married, but rather because she has given up. Her character stands in sharp contrast to that of Daisy Diana Dorothea Devore who still dreams and still loves. Tess Raz is a fabulous choice for Daisy. I greatly enjoyed watching her in The Children’s Hour at UW UTS but she is even better here, displaying her gift for thoughtful, dedicated vulnerability when others would choose something weaker. This is especially noticeable in the way she portrays nominally the same character in Scene 2 and Scene 6 but with completely different emphasis. I look forward to seeing her more in the future.

It’s also nice to see Joo Gyeong Kim, Ayşe Aylin Avcular, Juliana Kilty, and Liam He again. I still want Mr. He to solve his problem of how properly to physicalize dialogue — or, perhaps, I want him to explore it more thoughtfully and deeply — but he is always interesting to watch, as are Ms. Kilty, Ms. Kim, and Ms. Avcular. Their athletic ensemble work is always enjoyable and the way they give and take the light from each other is pure fun. Irfan Çetin is also good, as are Rain Anderson, Finn Jordan, and Josie Paulson. The last three are new to me (because I foolishly missed Machinal), but I am excited to see what they bring next season. With Ryan Guzzo Purcell’s exploratory direction and, too, a strong hand from Geoff Korf (who has lighted this very same play before in Seattle for New Century Theater back in 2008), the young actors get to put on a show that is simple and direct but still rich and rewarding. Such a strong ensemble as this reminds me how much I love student drama and its restless spirit of trial. It’s nice to be reminded of that at a time when so much of professional theater in town seems to be aimless, repetitive and downright bourgeois. The Adding Machine is anything but.

Categories Theater

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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