nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
April 12, 2008
Saying that God's Ear, by Jenny Schwartz, is about loss is almost as superficial as mumbling "have a nice day" to the checkout girl. What Schwartz does is quite extraordinary. She presents a drama where the words are both insightful and meaningless, where the characters are simultaneously paralyzed and plumbing for a primal scream, where misfortune unravels like a Greek tragedy while at the same time absurd and funny moments abound. This is a thoughtful, imaginative play that underscores the limitations of language to express grief. Schwartz, however, has found a way. God's Ear, now playing at the Vineyard Theatre, is a highly original piece of art.
There isn't a moment where the production loses sight of what it's about—the disintegration of a relationship after the death of a son. All—cast, director, and technical support—contribute substantially to the play's focus. Begin with the outstanding direction of Anne Kauffman, who brings depth to the overall production, and allows little room to breathe, with her crisp razor-sharp pace and her attention to detail. Her emphasis on the rhythms and repetitions of Schwartz's phrases and stories adds meaning to banal clichés, which Schwartz intentionally uses to heighten the detachment of the couple.
There are only two moments during the play when rational conversations occur. This rarity makes them beautiful and palpable for the simple connection between two people. The dialog is only several lines in each case, but they arrive like spring after a blizzard. One is between father and daughter, Ted and Lanie, and the other is the final scene between Ted and his wife, Mel.
The cast is just plain marvelous. Christina Kirk delivers a startling performance as Mel, a wife and mother, whose convincing spiral downward is as much due to her guttural, heartfelt delivery as to the lunacy of Schwartz's words. Gibson Frazier is an excellent counterpoint as her husband, Ted. He holds himself terrifically still during Mel's rants, coat on and briefcase in hand, always ready to leave on business. The two show wounded characters are unable to comfort one another or their young daughter Lanie, played by Monique Vukovic, who impressively reveals in both subtle and macabre ways the residual damage of this family tragedy.
Four other cast members add dimension to the play. Rebecca Wisocky's deliciously voluptuous portrayal of Lenora, whose chance encounter with Ted leads to comfort for him and comic relief in general, contrasts beautifully with Mel's lack of sexuality. The same can be said for Matthew Montelongo, who plays an appealing muscle-bound G.I. Joe in one scene and a cross-dressed flight attendant in another. In the latter, he delivers the right balance of irony, wit, and flamboyance. Raymond McAnally, as a guy in a bar, pelts the characters with rapid-fire jokes that under other circumstances would be groaners, but here, with little time to digest them, simply comprise a polished performance. While all this is going on, Judith Greentree patters around the stage as the Tooth Fairy, busying herself among the mortals.
The set, designed by Kris Stone, is very clever. Initially, it looks like a simple, raised platform. But, it is divided into large squares and rectangles that lift for scene changes, prop swaps, and exits. Mel sits on the edge of one as she talks to her daughter while mindlessly burying the action figures of her dead son in snow. Another is a sunken bed for Lanie, and still another serves as a bar showing Ted and Lenora sinking lower and lower into the sauce. All of the holes have a grave-like quality.
Costumes by Olivera Gajic cover the spectrum: sack-like comfort clothes for Mel; wings, tulle, polka dot tights, and glitter for the Tooth Fairy; and two marvelous costumes for the flight attendant and G.I. Joe. G.I. Joe's plastic wig is perfect. Tyler Micoleau's lighting lends an other-worldly atmosphere to an already spooky place, especially in the first scene when it is so uncomfortably harsh it actually washes away the faces of the couple. Leah Gelpe adds to the ensemble with her sound design. Not to be forgotten are the original songs by Michael Friedman, which catch the tone of this unusual play.
God's Ear is not an easy play. However, Jenny Schwartz tackles a difficult subject with a highly original voice. Her facility with language delivers a fresh, imaginative, and thought-provoking piece of theater. What more could you ask for?