Inn Town Players

“Empty Harvest” is a better name for this mess. A play that mistakes naivete for idealism and sandwich-board truisms for enlightenment, John Erlanger’s brain-damaged Mean Harvest is just what you don’t need, more leftover turkey.

This Chicago premiere isn’t even an original mess. Erlanger, a 27-year-old playwright, has written a play that was dated long before its first draft. Weighed down with symbols so obvious they should be listed on a blackboard like today’s specials (most feel purloined from Sam Shepard’s Buried Child), the story–about a family, surrounded by urban chaos, that disintegrates into homicidal anarchy–is virtually lifted from Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders. Its indictment of predatory capitalism is much more efficiently served in Keith Reddin’s Big Time or Life and Limb (or in any one panel depicting Doonesbury’s Duke), and its humor is sitcom silliness raised to the surreal. The only thing that’s fresh is the totality of this witless failure.

Conceived no doubt as a well-intentioned attack on Reaganite selfishness, Mean Harvest takes place in a forbidding future when hunger stalks the capitalist-ravaged land, shortages (emotional and otherwise) abound, and it’s every entrepreneur for himself. The setting is a 33rd-floor penthouse owned by Ken, a money-grubbing, fast-track, take-charge, self-made robber baron who manufactures toys like the “Nuclear Winter Combat Kit” and believes it’s a, if not dog-eat-dog, then He-Man-slay-He-Man world. This white-collar Archie Bunker holds out a bill and screams, “This is God, the dollar!” and never gets any subtler.

Naturally Ken is royally pissed that his newspaper doesn’t arrive anymore (“I can’t be left behind, not for a minute!”), the cable TV doesn’t work, the elevator’s broke, the refrigerator’s running out of food, and the “young lions” at his firm are out to get him–if he doesn’t literally kill them first.

Her soul shrunk to birdlike baby talk, his sex-starved wife Barb–married to Ken, get it?–used to write children’s stories, but now, to quote the psychobabble she’s created from, she’s lost touch with herself and hardly ever visits the neighbors–the Bradys, the Ricardos, the Mertzes, and the Nelsons. Barb can’t shop for what isn’t there anymore and she’d cry if there were anyone to notice.

Believing that the watchword of the 80s is “adapt,” the family’s self-appointed savior and breadwinner is son Joe. Reformer Joe is convinced that “people are drifting toward the dark side.” So he’s repudiated his Ivy League business school education and now maintains an organic farm on his father’s terrace; it’s a pale imitation of grandfather’s farm, which his father of course callously sold. Here’s where the symbols fall like sleet. Lugging in wheelbarrows of soil, Joe describes his work: renewing the topsoil, replenishing the roots, fighting erosion, returning to dirt, “the cradle for the seed,” saving potatoes so they can enjoy a second life–enough already, we get the point! Joe is Abel to his father’s Cain–though, incongruously enough, Joe’s also a big John Wayne fan.

But Joe is just as calculating as his dirty dad. He’s sure that the starving hordes that surround them will attack and slaughter the family unless he can prove he’s one of the people. Ken is certain his son’s brain got stuck in Steinbeck: “You can spend time with them or for them. You can’t do both.”

Completing the quartet is Joe’s airhead girlfriend. Called Truly (her last name should be Dumb), she’s “a sculptor of found objects” who’s studying “romantic languages” at NYU, preparatory to her life’s goal of working in a mall. Yes, to breathless Truly malls are everything, “the church of America today.”

As events predictably unravel, Truly finds herself drawn to Ken’s materialism and rejects Joe’s agrarian reform for the “security” of the mugger-ridden streets. Barb learns to work with her hands and turns against a husband who can only kill with his. The mother replaces the girlfriend and the girlfriend replaces the wife. Big Freudian deal! The final tragedy, idiotically prepared for, occurs when Ken destroys his son’s “farm,” then, desperate to escape the city, pleads with him to start another where they can all be free. But Joe’s dream has its own dark side, and mass murder is the only way out. (Hey, giving this ending away is a public service.)

Despite some incredibly pretentious director’s notes that compare this dreck to Parsifal’s search for the Grail, Jim Wise’s Inn Town Players staging is lowbrow and obtuse. Perversely enough, Wise plays the first act for screwball yahoo yuks, then, in the overheated second act, expects us to care for the underdrawn cartoons. (He can also take a key confessional scene and play it upstage so it won’t register.)

Only Nancy Lollar as Barb escapes with some dignity, however dingbatty. Mike Sassone emits a halfhearted one-note growl as the blustering fraud Ken. The usually excellent Ken Beider plays Joe as a Mr. Potato Head meets Thoreau; no inner life clutters this character’s bovine simplicity. Worst of all is Colleen Daugherty’s forced and phony Truly; Daugherty has somehow decided that exaggeration is the only cure for her character’s stupidity–so what was moronically italicized is now stupefyingly boldfaced and underlined. Who does Daugherty think she is–the playwright?

The Inn Town Players, not usually a group to underestimate so grossly an audience’s intelligence, have done great work before and will again. Anyway, that thought is what got me through the night.