Though he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1929, and though he was the first American playwright to use the device of a flashback (in his first play, 1914's On Trial), today Elmer Rice doesn't get the respect or attention of a Eugene O'Neill or even a Clifford Odets. An eclectic writer, Rice alternated between experimental works and commercial pieces, courtroom thrillers and agit-prop social dramas, but contemporary critics deride his plain language and melodramatic plotting and view him as a very minor figure on the theatre history landscape.
Rice's Pulitzer-winning Street Scene, a romantic tragedy of urban alienation in New York City, was adapted into a 1947 musical of the same name by Langston Hughes and Kurt Weill. That musical still finds its way to opera houses, but the 1929 play, which calls for a large ensemble cast, is rarely staged.
Off-Broadway patrons can get a rare look at the play, however, Oct. 25 Nov. 17 at the Theatre Row Theatre on 42nd Street. It's the first offering of the tenth anniversary season by the Willow Cabin Theatre Company, best known for bringing Wilder Wilder Wilder, an evening of three Thornton Wilder one-acts, all the way up from Off-Off-Broadway to a brief Broadway run. Director Edward Berkeley is the artistic director and co-founder of the ensemble.
Edward Berkeley has directed 17 plays for Willow Cabin Theatre, including 1995's Dylan Thomas adaptation, A Child's Christmas In Wales; the Holocaust drama Who Will Carry The Word?, and Tony-nominated Wilder Wilder Wilder. The cast of Scene includes such Willow Cabin regulars as Dede Pochos, Ibi Janko, Tasha Lawrence, Angela Nevard and Cynthia Besteman. Costumes are by Linann Easley, lighting by Matthew McCarthy, settings by John Kasarda.
Only two blocks away, theatregoers can find a production of Elmer Rice's absurdist satire, The Adding Machine, presented by Six Figures Theatre Company at the Mint Theatre on West 43rd St. Originally produced by the Theatre Guild at the Garrick Theatre in 1923, The Adding Machine originally starred William W. Griffith and Edward G. Robinson. Of Street Scene, Elmer Rice wrote, "This is not Skid Row but a lower-middle-class milieu, inhabited by workers of various sorts and even by a few intellectuals... There is a central love story: a sort of Romeo and Juliet romance between the stagehand's daughter and the radical's son: and a main dramatic thread of murder."
The Adding Machine follows protagonist Mr. Zero as he changes from lowly office worker to lover to murderer to dweller in the Elysian Fields. According to a listing in "The Back Stage Theatre Guide," "the dark, expressionistic work presents the universe as a heartless corporate enterprise in which human beings are mere raw material." Linda Ames Key directs the show, which stars Nick Dantos, Julie Flanders, Andria Laurie, Dan Leventritt and Shane Mishler.
Asked about her approach to The Adding Machine, Key told Playbill On-Line that her background is in dell'arte and clowning, so those elements, as well as much stylization, works its way into the piece. "Rice wrote the play in two different styles, I think," noted Key. "The first part, up to his execution, is on earth, and it's very mechanized and automated. The sets are black and white and grey, everything's rather dark. Then act two puts him in the Elysian Fields -- which he eventually runs away from because of the vagabonds and thieves."
Regarding the protagonist of Machine, Key said, "I see Mr. Zero as being a bit like Mr. Bean. He's lovable but also hateable. He's closed-minded and a bigot, but there's humor there, too."
Key, who directs the Mint Theatre's Process Company Training Program for actors, was asked why an all-female theatre company like Six Figures would do a play that shows most of its women characters in a negative light? Key affirmed that the darker characters are often more intriguing. "Just doing women who are bright and wonderful and fabulous, that's not a full picture, it's not as interesting or fun."
Six Figures Theatre Company dedicates its work to plays that "attempt to dispel the multitude of cultural myths in our society surrounding `the fairer sex.'"
The Adding Machine runs at the Mint through Nov. 3; for tickets ($12) and information call (212) 696-8931. Street Scene plays at the Theatre Row Theatre through Nov. 17. For tickets ($15) and information call (212) 886-1889.
-- By David Lefkowitz