Tiny Harvest | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Studio 108

at the Greenview Arts Center

What would we do without dysfunctional families? For the past 2,500-plus years, from those kooky guys and gals at the House of Atreus on, our theater has been utterly dependent on sick families for its stories. Tiny Harvest is just one more play featuring another in an unending series of neurotic clans in desperate need of a John Bradshaw seminar.

Or maybe a good 12-step program would be more appropriate: Tiny Harvest's family, the O'Reillys, are Irish. And we all know what that means--lots of liquor and talk (not to be confused with communication) and lots and lots of barely concealed hysteria about issues undealt with and feelings unexpressed. (I'm speaking here as a recovering Irish Catholic.) Playwright Greg Nagan has done a great job of laying the emotional foundation for his play. He clearly understands the underlying pressures in his contemporary middle-class Irish Catholic family--the disaffection with the church, the alienation from one's own feelings, the scary economic climate that sends some scaling upward and others within the same family down, down, down.

Which makes the overall failure of Nagan's play and this whole production all the more baffling. All the elements are here for a very funny dark comedy--an unmarried pregnant daughter abandoned by her boyfriend, a success-obsessed control-freak older daughter, a middle son tortured because he's fallen in love with his bosom buddy. Toss into this stew two half-Irish, half-Italian cousins (God help them), one of them a manic-depressive, the other with a very witty Jewish lover, and that should be enough to carry the comedy along for a good two acts. But instead the play wanders from scene to scene, introducing characters and bits of plot, and like an amiable, alcohol-addled drunk never gets around to telling a story.

I'm tempted to say the problem is that Nagan doesn't stick to a single genre. He starts with a rigid farcelike structure, introducing characters with various secret wants and problems, then allows the play to evolve into a less plot-driven comedy of middle-class manners, then into a heartbreaking Chekhovian comedy as we learn how unlikely it is that anyone's needs will be met. But lots of successful plays these days mix comic subgenres quite promiscuously: the farce that turns serious is Terrence McNally's virtual trademark.

Rather I think Nagan hasn't really mastered any of the genres he's writing in. His farce is mechanical, his comedy isn't very funny, and his characters' epiphanies sound like they were written for a rather basic playwriting workshop. Nor has he really figured out how to frame his story. He dwells on things that should be dealt with quickly, belaboring a comic scene in which the brother's one-night stand is caught going to the kitchen in a very short nightshirt, for example. Meanwhile other, more important issues, like the pregnant sister's decision about whether to keep the kid, are given short shrift. Nagan also diminishes much of the potential power of his play by making the subtext too explicit, as when one character drinks glass after glass of wine and another says point-blank, you drink too much. No kidding, the audience thinks, and you talk too much. Drama comes (and in comedy, laughter follows) when the playwright allows the audience to connect the dots.

Nor is Nagan's play well served by director Blake Cadkin's cast. Of the eight only Shirley Anderson as the tense oldest sister and Mike Vieau as the middle bro's best buddy consistently add a third dimension to Nagan's flawed dialogue. The result is that these two earn the majority of the show's genuine laughs, Vieau by turning his character into a marvelous 90s version of Ed Norton--he's got Art Carney's loopy mannerisms and half-sly, half-idiotic grin down cold. Anderson gets her chuckles the old-fashioned way--she understands her character inside and out, right down to her repressed, anger-driven compulsion to keep things neat and orderly. This gifted comedian gets laughs by wiping down a table or adopting that hurt martyr's tone on just the right word.

The rest of the cast don't have a clue how to deliver Nagan's often blunt and obvious dialogue in a way that will make him seem clever. To be fair, this shouldn't really be their job. But unfortunately a production based on a weak play is like a dysfunctional family: hapless innocents are the ones who suffer the most.

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