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The Harvest

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 24, 2016

Peter Kendall and Leah Karpel
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

The kind of group prayer you see when the lights go up on Samuel D. Hunter's new play The Harvest, which just opened at Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater in an LCT3 production, is like none you've probably witnessed before. Though it's occasionally punctuated by recognizable words and phrases such as "Jesus," "God," and "Jesus God," the characters' speech is otherwise unintelligible and incoherent, as though they were padding around the basement of the Tower of Babel rather than that of a church. Their dedication and their religiosity seem real enough, though, and isn't that all that really matters as far as praising God is concerned?

Nope. Hunter establishes before long that something darker and more dangerous is afoot in this Gomorrah-like outpost stationed in that hotbed of heresy, Idaho Falls. It has nothing to do with the eternally warring Middle East itself, to which the full group of five people we see flailing, writhing, and—let's just be honest—faking their glossolalia are about to be dispensed on a mission to preach to the Muslims there. What's really standing in the way is the church itself, which does little beyond poison anyone who dares trust it over their own feelings and better-attuned common sense.

Josh (Peter Mark Kendall) is still reeling from the recent death of his father, and isn't planning to just stay abroad for four months like the others—he's convinced God has told him to move there permanently. His best friend, Tom (Gideon Glick), can't cope with Josh's leaving, not least because he's losing his belief in God as he grows more and more to question the ways of his father, Pastor Chuck. Marcus and Denise (Christopher Sears and Madeleine Martin) are married and expecting a baby; afraid for his family's safety, Marcus lets out the secret early and facilitates their reassignment to a paper-pushing job rather than proselyting, definitively "proving" that Marcus is an emasculating man who places no trust in his infinitely smarter and more capable wife. (Whose belief in God may be questionable, but she's playing along because... er, well, because.) Chuck (Scott Jaeck) and the mission's leader, Ada (Zoë Winters) are master manipulators who've grown to discover exactly the stories they need to tell to coerce others into doing what goes against their interests, and aren't afraid to invoke the names of any heavenly events or figures to make it happen.

Peter Kendall, Gideon Glick, Zoë Winters,
Madeleine Martin, and Christopher Sears
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

The only clear-eyed person around? Josh's sister, Michaela (Leah Karpel), who's just arrived back in town, weeks after her father's death, once she's run out of the money needed to live on her own. She ran away years earlier, oppressed by the community, to the throbbing urban hub of Eugene, Oregon, where she could get the meth she craved. Michaela insists she knows what's best for Josh, though, and is going to pull him out of his service to God and into her car to drive him to safety—and, it's implied, make him pay her way—for the foreseeable future.

David McCallum's direction is emotionally sincere, and his staging the most that could be expected. (Dane Laffrey's cruddy-basement set is properly informally attractive, and it's lighted with unexpected richness—now fluorescent overheads, now bucolic sunlight streaming in throw the windows—by Eric Southern.) There are some compelling performances, too, primarily from Kendall, who pointedly conveys Josh being pulled apart outside and in, and Glick, who's even more affecting as he demonstrates with anguished, weak voice and frantic physicality, just much this young man has to lose. And Hunter turns out an expert treatment of Josh and Tom's relationship, hinting at their underlying issues without dwelling on them unnecessarily and distractingly, and pulls out some genuinely funny jokes in a lengthy scene where the gang practices witnessing to Arabs.

The prevailing problem with The Harvest, though, is the same as with so much of Hunter's work that's been seen in New York to date: Rather than creating a swath of complex characters who can conduct thoughtful, cogent arguments about issues they face, he falls back on the lazy shorthand of demonizing one side to make his points with a minimum of opposition. There is no suspense or tension in the question of whether Josh and his sister will escape the evangelical pastor's clutches, and we're not allowed to question whether that's a good or bad thing. Chuck and Ada are depicted not just as unsavory but actually terrible and personally destructive—and, worse, self-aware of what they're doing—and seeing them wreak so much havoc on innocent souls makes the trek to the final scene an uninteresting slog rather a taut battle of wills.

This extends beyond just Ada and Chuck, too: The closer anyone is to the church, the worse they are. Marcus is rendered as classless in his treatment of the Arabs ("heathen" is the term he uses) and vicious, misogynistic, and mockworthy, if not outright inhuman, not just by Hunter but by Sears (who's otherwise fine) and Martin in their performances—for what, wanting to protect his wife and unborn baby? Tom claims to find solace in prayer, yet it's only as he moves away from it that he stumbles toward lucidity. And asking us to side with the immensely self-destructive Michaela over the church is really pushing things, too, as Hunter gives us no reason to believe that Josh's life with her will last longer or be better. Getting the church and Idaho Falls out of the picture is presented as reward enough.

Combine these elements, and The Harvest registers as nothing more than a bland, anti-Idaho, anti-evangelical play. The same was true, for nearly identical reasons, of Hunter's other plays The Whale (anti-Idaho, anti-Mormon), The Healing (anti-Idaho, anti-Christian Science), Pocatello (anti-Idaho, anti-Olive Garden), and A Bright New Boise (anti-Idaho, anti-Hobby Lobby, and anti-evangelical), to name just four. (Hunter, for the record, is from Idaho.) The question of how far faith can and should be stretched once personal safety is on the line is a valid one, and the moments in which Hunter addresses that directly are his most successful here. But stacking the deck so completely suggests neither answers to this dilemma nor a playwright seriously interested in unearthing them. All it does is reduce a potentially worthwhile exploration of a key experience, or a critique of its efficacy, to mere babble.

The Harvest
Through November 20
Claire Tow Theater, 150 West 65th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge