nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 20, 2006
In Harvest, Manjula Padmanabhan's fine play that is currently receiving its NYC premiere at La MaMa, a young man in India takes a job as a professional organ donor. The time is the near future, and a company called Interplanta is recruiting healthy Third World humans to become, essentially, health repositories for wealthy Westerners. Om's client is a woman named Ginni, who pays him and his family top dollar—at least in terms of India's per capita income—to stay fit and ready for the possible day when she will need something from him, say, a kidney, or his skin, or his eyes.
Om's wife, Jaya, is understandably distressed by this new job, not least because of the strain it puts on an already very dysfunctional relationship. For Jaya is in love with, and having an on-again / off-again affair with, Om's younger brother, Jeetu, who supports himself by working as a prostitute. The other member of the household is Ma, Om and Jeetu's mother, a meddlesome lady who thinks that her elder boy (Om) can do no wrong and that the others can do no right (Jaya, for example, is repeatedly referred to as a "slut").
As for the work itself—such as it is—well, that's a round-the-clock regimen controlled 100% by Interplanta, who deliver boxes of food and other necessities as dictated by Ginni (she orders, for example, that a working toilet and shower be installed in Om's one-room, fourth-floor apartment, because she doesn't want her employee mixing with the "disgusting" others who dwell in his building). Om and his family do get to enjoy the spoils of his new high-paying position—in one of the play's most effective scenes, their rise to consumerist luxury is depicted wittily in a series of sight gags—but their lack of freedom eventually gnaws away at them, as does Om's fear that the day is drawing near when some part of his body will be needed by his faraway benefactress—quite possibly a part that he can't do without.
I won't reveal the rest of Padmanabhan's intricately plotted tale, but I will say that Harvest compels from beginning to end, creating a not-so-fanciful futuristic world that's pretty darned scary. Om's occupation starts off as a stark and brilliant symbol of the most invasive kind of First World Colonialism, but the play shifts gears along the way and turns its attention to an even more insidious form of colonization, that of our very humanity by a cultural ethos besotted with technology and comfort. While Om's family's crisis spirals horrifyingly out of control, commercials for Interplanta's latest and greatest products and services are projected on a screen that coincides with the rear wall of their apartment, lulling us (and them, perhaps) into a sense of security that's as malignant as it is false. (These exceedingly well-crafted videos are directed by Matt Bockelman.) Padmanabhan essentially picks up where Orwell left off, crafting a 21st century cautionary tale of enormous resonance.
Benjamin Mosse's production at La MaMa's First Floor Theater is mostly terrific, anchored by a quartet of splendid performances (Debargo Sanyal as Om, Naheed Khan as Ma, Christianna Nelson as Ginni, and Rupak Ginn as Jeetu) and smartly paced and designed (the endlessly escalating "conveniences" delivered to the family by Interplanta take the form here of cardboard boxes of all shapes and sizes, and as they stack up toward the ceiling they provide a visual allusion to Ionesco's The Chairs, a neat and relevant absurdist reference point). Diksha Basu is less effective as Jaya, unfortunately, failing to hold our attention or sympathy in Act One, which proves problematic as the play's focus shifts toward her in its second half.
But Harvest is by any measure a significant success, and La MaMa and East Coast Artists are to be congratulated for bringing it to the New York stage. Audiences in search of lively and challenging theatre that looks deeply and candidly at the relations between the world's "haves" and "have-nots" will be well stimulated by this thought-provoking, valuable work.