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Running on Empty

Clichés in the face of tragedy are as meaningless as they are on their own

Stan Barouh
Matthew Eisenberg (left) sticks it to Paul Morella.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 4/15/2009

God's Ear

By Jenny Schwartz

At Rep Stage through April 26

Jenny Schwartz wants to show us how people use clichés to shield their feelings, so she has built her 2007 play God's Ear around a man and a woman whose emotions are so raw they need extra buffering. Ted and Mel have lost their 10-year-old son in a drowning accident, and they try to hold back the flood of pain by talking in short, David Mamet-like sentences that pile up catch phrases like sandbags.

When Mel tries to explain how they'll keep going after her son's death, she says, "We'll kick up our heels. And have it both ways. And take a deep breath. And take it like men. And sit back. Relax. And ride off into the horse-shit. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health. And the fat lady will sing. With bells on."

In the show's Baltimore-Washington premiere at Rep Stage, Mel is played by Julie-Ann Elliott as an upper-middle-class, stay-at-home mom in a stylish pink jacket over a white top. But as the quote above demonstrates, she doesn't talk like any suburban mother or wife who ever lived; she talks like a New York hipster playing with language at a poetry reading. The fact that she displays a certain cleverness at such verbal games doesn't counter the fact that Schwartz is herself using clichés to prevent real feeling from surfacing. Like an incautious physician, she has been infected by the very disease she's trying to eradicate.

Ted, played by Paul Morella in a charcoal-gray suit, reacts to his son's death by taking more and more business trips until he only comes home to exchange one packed briefcase for another. His conversations with Mel are the typical long-distance phone calls and awkward foyer reunions of homemaker moms and traveling executives. Schwartz does chop these exchanges into bits and pieces that she rearranges and spins off into new variations, but the emotions are just as opaque. The playwright may have repainted the masks, but the masks still obscure the faces.

Director Kasi Campbell and her designers try to spice up the proceedings with visual clues to the hidden emotions. Upon the gray wall in back of the shallow stage, they project falling snow, drifting clouds, rippling waves, multiple TV images, even key words from the dialog. Characters from Ted and Mel's subconscious--a blue-winged tooth fairy in a pink wig (Barbara Rappaport), a muscular, transvestite stewardess in a blue uniform (Matthew Eisenberg), and one of the dead son's G.I. Joe dolls in a black plastic wig and camouflage uniform (Eisenberg again)--come to life on stage.

Nothing works. Schwartz is too carried away by her own wordplay to be bothered with turning her characters into real people with real feelings. Morella has done good work at Everyman Theatre and the Olney Theatre in the past (as has Elliott at the latter), but here they are defeated by the challenge of convincing us that a typical businessman and his wife would react to their son's death by spouting experimental, verbal-collage poetry.

The only performer who meets the challenge is actress Gia Mora, who plays Lenora, Ted's mistress. Lenora stirs her Singapore sling with its tiny red umbrella in a hotel bar in some strange city and regales her new lover with a drunken retrospective of her self-destructive life. She was just as drunk and pregnant to boot, she says, when her husband ran off with her cousin. Because she can barely sit up in her chair and can hardly stitch two sentences together, Mora makes Schwartz's fractured monologue seem plausible, turning it into an alcoholic's skillful seduction of a lonely man.

Schwartz pulls in scraps of language from the commercial environment--the safety instructions on an airplane, the rules for selling items on eBay--as if to highlight the absurdity of such verbiage in the face of a real disaster, like the death of a child. She's right--it is absurd--but this kind of humor works much better if you and your dorm mates have been smoking weed than if you arrive sober at a Howard County theater.

Whenever a writer tries to depict boredom or alienation or dishonesty on the page or on the stage, there's always the danger that the author will evoke the subject all too well. That's the trap Schwartz has fallen into, and the valiant cast at Rep Stage is unable to pull her free.

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