Inside "The Cashier," the winner of the American College Theater Festival's playwriting contest, is a television series crying to get out. Indeed, one suspects that the cashier of the title is actually author Glen Merzer's agent, already counting the chips.

It's really not too surprising that a generation of writers raised on television writes like television, all short scenes ended with blackouts rather than resolutions, and one-liners rather than thoughts. But why bother with the tedious process of theater? Why not just get Alan Alda and Tim Conway on the phone and read it to them?

It's not that the one-liners aren't funny--many of them are. And some of the characters, particularly a born-again mail-room supervisor and two handicapped workers, are nicely crafted and, in this production from Indiana University, deftly acted. But this play, set in the mail room of an IRS office in Bakersfield, Calif., tap dances around the questions it raises rather than trying to deal with them.

The cashier of the title is a blind man who appears in the play only briefly, a gentle soul with the news that people don't try to cheat him in the cafeteria line. "People have hearts still," he says. "Or they think it's too easy to steal from a blind man." Our hero, Ralf, is a youth on the lam from life and a fiance' in New York, who has taken what he expects to be a meaningless, menial job to support him while he paints.

"It's pleasant working for the government--it's like retiring young," says his supervisor, a friendly homosexual who takes "no" for an answer. For some reason Ralf feels at home among his fellow workers, all of them caught in their own ordinary and tender sagas. There's cheerful Melba, who finds joy in Jesus; Bob, physically crippled and mentally not too bright either; Fred, also well-meaning but dim; Jimmy, a young black angry at the prospect of 30 more years in the mail room; Doris, who retires, complaining Adeline, who quits, and jazzy Denise, who gets beaten up by her boyfriend. Emily, a health nut who gave up the study of psychology, becomes Ralf's closest friend. Merzer clearly has affection for this crew and they are the strongest element of the play.

As the play ends, Ralf has given up art "for reality," ditched his New York girlfriend and self-destructively taken up smoking. He has settled into his pointless job and symbolically put his identification tag around his neck like everyone else, instead of hanging it from his belt as a gesture of individuality. No longer the visitor to the "real" world of tedium and paychecks, he has become another character in the office.

John Maxwell Hobbs as Ralf never quite convinces us that this young man is real; cute, yes, but not real. Carrie Mingo as Melba, Frederick Shamlian as Fred, Randy Springer as Bob, Lillie Bowie as Denise, and David Alan Anderson as Jimmy have all happily gone beyond stereotypes and contribute a measure of poignancy to the evening.

"The Cashier" plays today at 2 p.m and 7:30 p.m. at the Terrace Theater.