Mourning Sickness

God’s Ear is a curious concoction. The 2007 play by New York writer Jenny Schwartz is now at Berkeley’s Ashby Stage in a lively staging by dance theater artist Erika Chong Shuch. The plot, such as it is, would make you think it’s an examination of grief, but really it’s much more an examination of language—the triteness and insufficiency of it, the way it often feels like it doesn’t matter what you say as long as you say something.

Ryan O’Donnell and Zehra Berkman in God’s Ear. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

The way Schwartz plays with language throughout the play is inventive, sometimes amusing, and more often irritating. With questions repeated over and over again with slightly different answers, the script has the quality of conversations with a small child who keeps asking “Why?” to every answer you give. And in fact, there are conversations exactly like that between the mother and daughter, although the mother’s answers are more perverse than the child’s questions.

The play opens with Beth Wilmurt as an agitated mother, Mel, fretting over a child in critical condition (“or is it crucial?”) while her husband, Ted, tries to comfort her. Ryan O’Donnell remains calm, seemingly emotionless as Ted, and they face toward the audience while talking to each other as if they’re not in the same room. And maybe they’re not—in the play they’re always speaking as if on the phone even when they’re seemingly right next to each other.

“What’s the definition of prognosis exactly?” Mel asks. “I know but I don’t know.” “I don’t know but I know,” Ted says. At this point you may as well settle in, because that’s how people talk throughout the play.

Mel recites a long doggerel stream of clichés in Seussian cadence (“the fat lady will sing with bells on”), and later there’s a list of things you can’t sell on eBay. The way Schwartz plays with the double meanings of phrases like “I thought I lost you”—on the phone and in life—are clever in an “I see what you did there” way. With so much wordplay going on, it would be a downright shame if some of it didn’t tickle your fancy, and there are lines here and there that certainly tickle mine, such as when Mel asks, “Are you coming home for Christmas? Easter? Nor’easter?”

Ted is always on the way home, sometimes walking in the door with a half-assed gift (“do they keep on giving?” his wife always asks), but he’s never really home.  It’s as if he’s always on the verge or arrival, but never quite makes it far enough to sit down.

During each of these abortive homecomings, their daughter Lanie bursts in with endearing enthusiasm in the background, while for some reason (or no reason at all) pulling on a sweater over all the sweaters she’s already put on. She also has a tail, although it’s never commented upon, and whether it’s part of her or just some costume she’s wearing is unclear.

When we first see Lanie, she’s a girl in pigtails singing as white-jacketed doctors dance around her. You might think from this staging that she’s the one in crucial or critical condition, but no, she’s the other one: Lanie, the child who lives. It’s the son, Sam, who died. Although she comes off more like a teenager than a six-year-old, Nika Ezell Pappas’s singing voice as Lanie is appropriately childlike in its flatness.

Ted seems to be sleeping around on the road, as Mel has no trouble telling her daughter. “A fraction is a piece of pie,” she says. “A call girl is a piece of ass.” There’s a disturbing bit where Ted proposes wife swapping with another guy: “Her name’s Mel, short for Melanoma, but you can change it. Her vagina is green and her urine is blue.” And everyone Ted talks to has also lost a son. Even the Tooth Fairy. And yeah, the play has the Tooth Fairy in it.  Also G.I. Joe.  Don’t ask why—it just does.

Zehra Berkman brings unexpected depth to the role of airport lounge floozy Lenora in a beautifully animated performance: staggering drunk, laughing hysterically, spinning rambling, repetitive stories and singing shaggy-dog songs. She’s happy go lucky with a promiscuously vulnerable center, ready to pour her heart out incoherently to anyone who comes along. Joe Estlack plays a credible loudmouth yahoo as her boisterous drinking buddy, and Melinda Meeng is appropriately syrupy-voiced as the Tooth Fairy, laying on the sugar as if to increase her business.

Keith Pinto severely overplays his roles as a gun-toting transvestite stewardess and G.I. Joe, though I do appreciate in the latter role how he keeps his hands in the factory-set circular clench. I’m not sure what the whooshing sound is about whenever he turns his head, though.

Lisa Clark’s set looks like an ice cave out of an old sci-fi show, with crumpled white cloth towering from the ceiling to the white slanted floor, smudged with blue. Some of the bits are grating, such as Ted reciting his impossible wishes for his dead son as a bell dings and the others applaud his every utterance as if he’s a game show contestant, but other moments in Shuch’s staging are effective even if it’s hard to know what to make of them, such as when hands pop out from the wall and floor to hand Mel silverware

It’s not a musical but there are songs throughout it, with lyrics by Michael Friedman and music by Daveen DiGiacomo. Some of them are lovely, such as the final “tell me story” number between the Tooth Fairy and G.I. Joe, and Mel, Lanie and the Tooth Fairy do a pleasingly peppy girl group number.

There are glimpses of the emotion behind all the gimcracks and gewgaws, such as when Mel tells Lanie, “This morning I woke up, and for a fraction of a second I couldn’t remember which one of you had died.” The story of how her child died is devastating when it finally comes, but the play is too abstracted and distracted to have much emotional resonance in its treatment of grief. You can certainly see that the two parents have become alienated from each other in their grief, but they’re both so closed off that it’s hard to feel much for them.

Wilmurt plays the abstracted disassociation fairly well, and it’s not her fault that the way Mel deals with her grief is to become the most irritating character in the play, aside from the transvestite stewardess. The trouble is, that means it’s a lot more fun in the lounge with the lushes than it ever is at home with the spacey mother and child who babble in riddles on the weird ice planet. It makes it hard to really want the guy to ever go back.

God’s Ear
Through June 27
Ashby Stage
1901 Ashby Ave.
Berkeley, CA

Show #62 of 2010, attended May 30

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  1. 6 / 9 / 2010 3:05 pm

    Wow. I love reading your take on this play. I agree that the language sometimes mired the point of the play, grieving for a dead child, and that some of the movement sequences were breathtaking, albeit unclear at times. But in a way, I felt that that is precisely what it’s like to live through intense grief. It’s circular, surreal and absurd.

    Also, I had an opposite reaction to the characters. I couldn’t wait for Beth Wilmurt, Mel, to come back on stage. Mel’s story was the one that I was most interested in. Although, I felt that everyone did a fabulous job with the acting and language, and I agree with you about Zehra. She keeps getting better and better.

    Thanks for your review!





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