Taken to incredible extremes, just about anything can be funny. Joe Hartin may not be doing the impossible with his new play, Ed the Fourth, at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, but he's finding ways to get enormous laughs from subjects as diverse as religious cults, overpopulation, dehumanization, and euthanasia; that's probably accomplishment enough.
What makes Ed the Fourth soar as comedy is the full-blown, yet not unbelievable, absurdity that Hartin and director Nancy Larsen have woven into almost every minute of the play. When the show begins, someone is watching a TV news show hosted by two completely generic and uncharismatic personalities; one character makes her entrance connected to a dog leash pulled by someone else; and huge swaths of the play's action revolve around two framed human cells.
Those cells are the beginnings of a new human placed into stasis. In the year 2049, Earth's population has soared so high that people are relegated to living like rats in tiny rooms in enormous, city-size towers, and all births are tightly controlled. So, for Lovey (Deborah Clifford) and her husband Ed, Jr. (Dave Konig) to have the child they so desire, one of the four people living the cramped, crowded apartment must leave. For Love, Ed, Jr., and his mother Doris (Stephanie Hepburn), the choice is obvious: Ed (Marc Fine), the family's patriarch. He doesn't want to go, of course, so the family conspires with a doctor (Kurt Lauer) to get him taken away.
Ed the Fourth is mostly about the elder Ed's quest for survival against the most unfavorable of odds. But while Hartin finds plenty of easy laughs in the material - such as the world's fascination with Elvis, around whom an entire religion has formed, or lines like "A nice little Jell-O boy," to describe the yet-unborn Ed the Fourth - this is, at its core, a family story. Questions about grown children's responsibilities to their parents, and the parents' responsibilities in turn, are critical issues in the play, though they're never handled remotely seriously.
That foundation lends the material a surprising warmth and poignancy that makes the characters' drives and feelings soberingly real. Lovey's desperation to have a baby to bring some meaning into her own life, the nurse (Nancy Sigworth) attending the perfectly fit Ed being afraid or unwilling to risk her career by doing much besides feeding him strained gourd, and even the doctor with his unusual sanity tests don't seem too far removed from the type of people that make up today's world.
That anchor to our time, and Hartin's masterful ability to balance the story's humor and pathos, are really what make the play work. Larsen's frantic direction, which matches Hartin's script step for wacky step, is perfectly in keeping with the tone of the script. Each of the actors, too, gives a controlled comic performance that combines with all the others to form a winning cacophony of character-based hilarity that doesn't let up until the play ends.
Fine is perhaps the most engaging performer, and makes Ed a resourceful, quick-thinking foil for son and daughter-in-law. By the time he finishes telling the climactic joke that might well decide whether or not he spends his remaining years in a mental institution, it's difficult know if you should laugh or be shocked at the audacity of Hartin's writing and Fine's delivery of it. Luckily, that the rest of Ed the Fourth can be laughed at - and mulled over afterwards - is never at all in doubt.
Midtown International Theatre Festival