Thursday, April 24, 2008

God's Ear

Photo/Carol Rosegg

"I lost my umbrella," says Ted, struggling to find a place within in the stifling normalcy from which he can speak to his wife. "You could have bought a new one," responds Mel (short for Melanoma, but more appropriately, for Melancholy). "I wanted to get home," he punches back. "I'm glad you're home," says Mel, clipping into the rhythm (a sort of verbally repetitious but vocally fresh beat, the sort relentlessly fueled by subtext). "I'm glad I'm home, too," says Ted, pausing only for a moment before adding, "I missed you." "I missed you, too," Mel replies, simply. "No, but I really missed you," says Ted, with the sort of banal logic on which the fate of the world, or at least God's Ear, hangs. "Those are just words to you," he continues, "but I mean it." And that's the miracle of Jenny Schwartz's writing: for all the patters and patterns, underneath the monologues steeped in cliché or those surrounded by trivia, she means it, every last word. (I'd expect no less from a playwright who retypes every word in every draft.)

This literary aestheticism is necessary, too, for God's Ear is about a family trying to cover up their sadness, first by burying it under the surface, then by refusing to talk about it, and finally by shushing it away, either with streams of directed nonsense or with an anesthetic and forced normalcy. The play pits the dark truth against the pretty fiction, at times speaking entirely from subtext (imagine a commercial Chekhov), and then turns to a magical realism in which figments like the Tooth Fairy, GI Joe, and "a transvestite stewardess with a gun to my head," take on flesh. As they burst to the surface, the characters descend into their own personal underworlds, meeting in the midpoint of reality and fantasy, though always grounded by the gentle cadence of the text. At one point, when Ted is asked what he wants by a "transvestite stewardess with a gun to my head" that he has conjured up, he faces his son's tragic death:

I want to watch my son grow up and get married. Or grow up and not get married. I don't care if my son gets married. I just want my son to grow up and be happy. I just want my son to grow old and be safe. I just want my son to outlive me by a million and one years. By a million and two years. I just want my son to outlive me by a million and three years. I just want my tears to roll up my face instead of down my face. I just want my tears to defy the laws of gravity. I just want my son to defy the laws of nature. I just want a drink.
This is the sort of exaggerated truth that leads to deep revelation, a technique on par with the off-kilter plots and characters of, say, Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone. In another scene, Mel -- provoked by the powerful prodding of her daughter's "Why?" -- quickly crescendos through a series of accusations: her husband uses call-girls because he's lonely, bored, weak, and pathetic. That this isn't true is beyond the point (Ted attempts an affair with Lenora, another lonely soul, looking for the right mix of compliments and liquor to drown out their grief); in the wake of their son's death, all that exists for these characters is what is within their own minds.

If the play sounds difficult to digest, worry not: the show is superbly directed by Anne Kauffman, who takes the text -- off-kilter as it is -- literally enough to make it work. Kris Stone's staging is a smooth blue-paneled floor, shiny and unblemished at first, but slowly pockmarked with problems, as characters surface from beneath the panels, metaphors springing to life from the repressed underground. The same goes for Tyler Micoleau's lighting, which one could almost call poetic, in the way it dabs, dashes, and caresses the action -- never brightly illuminating any one thing, but always keeping our attention fixed on the drama. Aesthetically, the design is as pitch perfect as the dialog -- even Olivera Gajic's costuming fits the characters, with loose, baggy clothing (or a disheveled suit) given to the mourners and a tattered wings for the Tooth Fairy.

As for the cast, there's a reason most of the actors from last year's production are being used again. These lines live within them, and I can't imagine hearing Mel (Christina Kirk) speak without that lisp, or Ted (Gibson Frazier) speak without that stubbly regret. The one newcomer, Rebecca Wisocky, is the right choice: she now steals the show -- so infectiously giddy that her Lenora's vulnerability is all the more sad. From the menace in Matthew Montelongo's stewardess ("There's no need to panic, but you certainly shouldn't relax") to Judith Greentree's matter-of-fact Tooth Fairy ("Aloe is nature's way of saying sorry"), these actors find otherness, but never abandon the basic humanity that anchors the entire play -- in particular, Monique Vukovic, who, as the daughter, Lanie, delivers a long monologue comprised of trivia ("Did you know that avocados are the good kind of fat?"). As she speaks, she emulates other people, but the effect doesn't make her seem too old -- rather, she seems too young, trying to hide her age with an impersonation of TV wisdom. All the actors -- and let me not leave out Raymond McAnally's rootin'-tootin' "normal" Guy -- have such remarkable ranges that the staggering scale of this script seems to be no trouble at all.

God's Ear is highly recommended, on all levels, as an alternative play that manages to be more than an original voice or a clever device. I'm not repressing anything beyond a wall of grief, so whereas Jenny Schwartz has to take the long road, I'll be direct: you must see this heartbreaking show. It is fresh, funny, poignant, and a phenomenal use of talent.

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