Malthus was one of the most unappreciated geniuses in history. He theorized that most of society's problems are caused by overpopulation. Heedless of Malthus's observations, and the considerable amount of evidence to back them up, humanity is still on its way to filling the entire surface of the Earth with a "ball of solid human flesh," as playwright Joe Hartin says.
It is the issue of overpopulation that Hartin addresses in his play Ed the Fourth. In the year 2049, the Earth has a population of 20 billion people. There are so many humans that cities have become nothing but huge towers crammed full of folk. The lucky ones get to live in strictly regulated housing units (apartments), and the rest fight for the right to live in the garbage chutes. Apartment leases limit the number of inhabitants that can live in a particular unit, and children can't be born until the current occupants die or move out.
The eponymous Ed is one such unborn child; nothing more than a pair of freeze-dried cells, kept in stasis, waiting to be born. This title character is just a prop (a blob of goo mounted in a frame on the wall), and the real protagonist is Ed the Second (Marc Fine). Ed the Second is the grandfather of these cells, and the leaseholder of a living unit that can hold only four people. Between Ed the Second, his wife, Doris (Stephanie Hepburn), his son, Ed the Third (Dave Konig), plus Ed the 3rd's wife, Lovey (Deborah Clifford), the apartment just can't hold any more people. Unfortunately, Ed the 3rd and his wife want to have Ed the 4th, which means that Ed the Second has to go. A scheme is hatched to have Ed the Second declared insane and thrown out. Wackiness and sharp social satire ensue.
The wackiness is partly due to the script, but mostly due to the directorial interpretation of Nancy Larson. The script could have been taken in a serious direction, but Larson gave it a campy, absurdist feel, which was entertaining, though perhaps not the way to get the most from the material, which could certainly have been played straight. A stellar cast (with Fine at its core as Ed the Second) played along with the campy direction, perfectly at home in their bizarre world.
The one disappointing thing about Ed the 4th is that it ran a mere 40 or so minutes. Hartin has gone to the trouble of creating this insightful future world, yet he doesn't explore it fully. Hartin's creation definitely extends beyond the two rooms of Ed the Second's housing unit (even including news reports from the year 2049), and it would be interesting to see more of it. This one-act play simply begs for a second act that will, it is to be hoped, be part of a less avant garde production at some point in the future. Though preferably not a future as bleak as the one in which Ed 4th is waiting to be born.
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Copyright 2004 Charles Battersby