For West German playwright Franz Xaver Kroetz, the most lethal waste product of industrialism is boredom.
The trick is to portray it without producing it. Kroetz brought it off arrestingly in "Request Concert," in which a neatly dressed woman comes home from the office, makes her supper, listens to some music on the radio and kills herself, all without speaking a word.
Now we have Kroetz's "Mensch Meier," a family study, at the Odyssey. Papa Meier (David J. Partington) goes off to work every morning at the BMW plant. Mama (Diana Bellamy) stays home and dusts the whatnot. Teen-age Son (Peter Jacobs) bums cigarettes and looks for work, but not very hard.
The first part of the play demonstrates, at length, that the Meiers have nothing going as a family (though Mama tries to be their link) and nothing to say to each other as individuals. They eat, they sleep, they go shopping, they watch TV. Ho-hum. Nobody home.
They come closest when they bicker. Papa can't stand Son's apathy. Son can't stand Papa's hectoring. Eventually, there's a showdown and the family falls apart. Now each of the Meiers will have to stand on his own two feet. Mama and Son will have the stuff. But Papa, with no one left to bully, will have to start seeing the world differently.
By the end, "Mensch Meier" is revealed as a message play, not unlike the kind that used to show up on American TV in the early 1950s, concerned, progressive, a little sanctimonious.
The first half of the play, showing how the Meiers hardly exist for each other at home, is more trustworthy. But it also presents a big problem. It's hard for actors to find the flatness of these vignettes without being flat. The Meiers need something beyond ordinary fourth-wall realism--perhaps an exaggeration of the silences, perhaps a sense that this family has almost made a ritual of being inexpressive.
Odyssey director Victor Brandt hasn't found a performance style for the play, nor has designer Gina Gambill found a frame for it.
We see a dreary succession of scenes about dreary people, the acting capable, but a little soggy, the design limp. No reason is given for us either to relate to the Meiers as people or to view them as significant specimens of the culture. There's no sense, for example, that their housing project has some of the aspects of a cell block.
As a story, theirs is a dull one, and at the Odyssey the story is all we get. (A production four or five years back at Seattle's Empty Space Theatre caught the regimentation behind their lives.) Each player has his moments, with Jacobs particularly good as the bewildered (rather than hostile) son. But the viewer goes home hungry.
Performances at 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, at 7 p.m. Sundays. 12111 Ohio Ave. (213) 826-1626.