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— Before anyone speaks at the La Jolla Playhouse, we could be watching a scene from the TV show All in the Family: balding Archie Bunker slumped in his old chair; Edith, clad in shapeless cotton, about to say, "You know, Aw-chee." But then the woman, Mrs. Zero, starts talking, and talking, and repressed anger surfaces, and Mr. Zero just sits stony, like a robot with disconnected circuits, and you realize that these aren't the Bunkers, and Elmer Rice's Adding Machine's no TV sitcom.

"What about me?" she asks. She scrubs floors and cooks meals, while he sits all day "just addin' figgers an' waitin' for 5:30. There's no 5:30 for me." He's been a department store accountant for 25 years. She's been "a slave, washin' pots an' standin' over a hot stove." Jan Leslie Harding performs the opening monologue brilliantly, her New Joy-zee accent rising from a slow burn to a four-alarm rager. To underscore her frustration, the production spins her counterclockwise on an orange revolve.

And what about silent Mr. Zero? Most dramatic characters have an arc. He has a nosedive. At first he's a mite sympathetic. His rote job's dehumanizing (an adding machine replaces him after 25 years). But he and his neighbors, it turns out, are selfish, bigoted, racist xenophobes. And when he talks about a growing love of violence, he fits the pattern of a serial killer. Some souls, we learn later, become progressively worse with each reincarnation. As if to prove the point, Mr. Zero unpeels like an onion, from protagonist to antihero to the "spineless" prey of demagogues who play on his "ignorance and credulity and provincialism."

Other souls -- his wife's, his office-mate Daisy's, the puzzled, obsessively moral Shrdlu's -- are less easy to pinpoint. But the playwright pushes Mr. Zero beyond the evils of technology. Even in the Elysian Fields, given complete freedom of choice, Zero can't, as Bing Crosby croons in the background, "Ac-cen-tuate the positive." He looks around, sees a "mixed crowd" of unrepressed artists and bohemians, and wants out.

In an interview, director Daniel Aukin said we won't identify with Zero but will sympathize. Well, a saint might. The guy's a black hole. Few characters in literature are as blank and unfeeling. Even though Richard Crawford tries to coax sympathy through comic passivity, the veneer can't conceal what becomes increasingly obvious: Mr. Zero would applaud the Holocaust.

Better to worry about Diana Ruppe's sharp and touching Daisy, and Joshua Everett Johnson's doom-addled Shrdlu (the name sounds guru-mystical but is actually the second line of keys on a linotype machine), and Mrs. Zero, who shows signs of her husband's docility when she vows to give him another 25 years.

Elmer Rice (1892-1967), who abandoned a career as a lawyer, wrote over 20 experimental dramas championing social justice. The idea for Adding Machine came in an instant: "I was actually possessed," he said, "it was as close to automatic writing as anything I have known." Expressionism, which Rice borrowed from Fritz von Unruh and from Frank Wedekind's Fruehling's Erwachen, turns realism inside out. It's as if Rice's characters have Tourette's syndrome. As in Mrs. Zero's monologue, they withhold feelings then, in a tic, blurt out hopes, fears, and hatreds. In the Potiker Theatre's arena stage, the actors are miked. At first this seems excessive for such an intimate configuration. But it works, because they only use the mikes when their characters express inner turmoil to themselves.

The mikes, and other technical aspects also detract, however. Adding Machine's a confirmed Luddite. Sets for the original were jagged, abstract warps, the edges sharp as scissors. The playhouse's set is sleek and eye-appealing, and the Expressionistic effects rely heavily on technology: doorbells and bright lights, and the splashy one, when cables raise the floor to the ceiling. The message gets mixed. Technology's erasing the human, Rice shouts like an agitated prophet. But, the production replies, especially when hot pink feathers trickle down through the open circle, look how pretty we can make it.

Theatergoers new to Adding Machine may miss its importance. Many of its concerns -- machines taking over, people becoming mere numbers, frozen in their ways and blind to alternatives -- tab it as yet another '50s diatribe against dehumanization. But it isn't. It was decades ahead of its time and may be American theater's first Expressionistic drama, paving the way for Sophie Treadwell's Machinal and the works of Eugene O'Neill, among others. And Rice wrote his angry riposte not in the '50s but in the midst of the exuberant Jazz Age, in 1923.

***

The San Diego Rep opened its 32nd season with what may be this country's most durable musical revue: Ain't Misbehavin': The Fats Waller Musical Show. No matter how many times you see it (I've seen four versions), it conjures the soul of the 285-pound genius (1904-1943) who wrote Tin Pan Alley tunes for the "Downtown" crowd ("who like their jazz in small doses") and stride-piano sparklers for the "Uptown" of the Harlem Renaissance.

The Rep literally conjures Waller by playing a recording of his music, then bringing in JMichael's live four-piece band underneath. One could quibble about some scenelets that didn't quite cohere on opening night, but overall it's a joyous, sassy winner, especially when the talented cast heads Uptown in Act Two. Decked out in Reggie Ray's parade of white silks and furs, and performing in the smooth, elegant style of the era, they swing into light numbers, buoyant as clouds, belt the audience-participation-pleaser "Fat and Greasy," and dive deep, as a unit, with an unforgettable "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue."

The Adding Machine by Elmer Rice

La Jolla Playhouse, UCSD, La Jolla

Directed by Daniel Aukin; cast: Richard Crawford, Jan Leslie Harding, Joshua Everett Johnson, Walter Belenky, Molly Fite, Liz Jenkins, Rufio Lerma, Diana Ruppe, Paul Morgan Stetler, Peter Wylie; scenic design, Andrew Lieberman; costumes, Maiko Matsushima; lighting, Japhy Weidman; sound, Colbert S. Davis

Playing through October 7; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010.

Ain't Misbehavin': The Fats Waller Musical Show, conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz

San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown

Directed and choreographed by Patdro Harris; cast: Robert Barry Fleming, John Steven Crowley, Lisa Payton, Valerie Payton, Austene Van; scenic design, Robin Sanford Roberts; costumes, Reggie Ray; lighting, Jennifer Setlow; sound, M. Scott Grabau

Playing through October 14; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000.

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