Manbites Dog Theater, one of the true hidden gems of the entire Southeast theater scene, is presenting God’s Ear, a remarkable journey through the disintegration of a family after the death of the only son. Written by Jenny Schwartz, this often exasperating play had successful runs in New York City in 2007 and 2008 and now comes to Durham under the excellent direction of Jeff Storer.
How does one deal with the death of a child? What behavior results from such an event? How do you communicate unspeakable grief? How do you communicate at all? All of these questions are implicitly asked in what is actually an evening devoted to language: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The opening scene assaults you like an hallucinogenic marriage scene. Ted (Derrick Ivey) and Mel (Meredith Sause) are side by side, exchanging vows of faithfulness and perpetual love. But soon you are struck by the machine-gun attack of words, words, and more words. Some make sense, but many are empty pre-programmed clichés that are as dull and meaningless as your most recent receipt of “have a good one.” While the concept and exploration of language being woefully inefficient in enlightening others of your inner thoughts and feelings is nothing new, God’s Ear does it in a highly effective and often very funny manner. You are in a madhouse with glimpses of reality, as people interact with a syntactic mix of Dr. Seuss meets Gilbert & Sullivan.
Mel is left at home with her seven year-old daughter Lanie (Nicole Quenelle), the Tooth Fairy (Marcia Edmundson), and a resurrected G.I. Joe (Chris Burner), while her husband Ted has numerous adventures at airport bars and on flights. The couple’s phone conversations show how people talk past each other as attempts at real connections invariably revert to bulimic expulsions of puns, tired expressions, and a meaningless cadence of hollow sounds. You can see Ted attempting to deal with the death of his son in his own peculiar ways as he asks strangers he meets if they have a dead child. We get a respite from the seriousness of the play in several encounters Ted has. His attempted pick up of Lenora (played with great comedic finesse by Katja Hill) at the airport bar is a very funny and wonderfully directed scene that could easily have spiraled downward into an embarrassing sitcom. He also has an encounter with fellow traveler Guy (Rajeev Rajendran) as they compare wives with the hope that perhaps they can swap. Best of all is the transvestite flight attendant (Chris Burner again, doing double duty) in some hilarious scenes as well as a performance of a totally out-of-left-field song, “Some Things You Can’t Sell on Ebay.”
The subtitle is “a play with music,” and for that we have to thank the multi-talented Bart Matthews, who composed all the music and was a constant presence on stage playing piano, guitar, accordion, and electric piano. While it is unlikely that any of the songs will become a standard, they were all well-crafted, effectively set the mood, and helped convey the emotions of characters – something that the dialogue was unable to do. The piano introduction to the second act was quite lovely in a Satie-like way, and the duo finale was the most musically satisfying moment of the play.
All of the actors were uniformly excellent and I did not detect even one slip or hesitation in the reams of dialogue that had to be learned. If I had to pick one who went even beyond excellent to Oscar worthy, it would be Nicole Quenelle, portraying the confused and remaining child of Ted and Mel. She had all the mannerisms, speech patterns, and incessant questioning of a young child as nearly perfect as you can get, and she seemed physically to inhabit that spirit. The set in this small theater made great use of the space and was quite remarkable in its ability to enhance the story with some nice touches like a swing for the Tooth Fairy, “snow” coming through the ceiling, and a drop-down oxygen mask.
Whether you are new to this area or an old veteran of the Triangle, if you have not already been to a Manbites Dog Theater production, then God’s Ear is the one to cut your teeth on. This well-run and wonderfully decorated theater next door to the old Durham Bulls ballpark is as good as you will get anywhere, including New York, and deserves the community’s support.
This show continues through June 5. For details, see our theatre calendar.