A “radical revolutionary” is under heavy surveillance in Mark St. Germain’s Ears on a Beatle, a two-hander about a veteran FBI agent and his young assistant who are trailing one of the country’s most worrisome renegades. What makes their target so threatening? For starters, he’s a pot smoker with a funny British accent. His taste in wives is considered downright subversive. And he’s planning to stage a musical protest during the Republican National Convention. Obviously, the action takes place before John Ashcroft began his boundaryless patrol. The scary thing is that the drama derives from actual files the FBI kept on John Lennon, the Beatle who was given “highest threat level” classification by authorities whose paranoia seems to match that of our current crop.
St. Germain’s survey of Nixon-era “security” measures, while pointedly reminding us how rapidly fear of an enemy can erode the rule of law, focuses on the personal dimension of American political history. At issue here is the changing relationship between a fortysomething veteran agent and his hyperactive new deputy. Paunchy, patriotic, and gruff, Howard Ballantine (the perfectly cast Dan Lauria, of The Wonder Years fame) wears his starched white shirts like a second skin; he’s a law enforcement bureaucrat who equates anti-war with anti-American, and thinks the lyrics to “Imagine” are treacly to the point of cavity-inducing. Daniel McClure (Bill Dawes) doesn’t yet know who he is. Forced to pose as a hippie to gain access to Lennon’s inner circle, he wears macramé vests and bell-bottoms with dandyish pride. A general’s son whose panic attacks made him unfit for Vietnam service, he’s trying to serve his country with the same valor as his military-hero brother—if only his boss would let him enjoy his brief masquerade in this cool beatnik world.
The battle lines between Howard and Daniel couldn’t be more familiar: Rugged realism takes on dewy-eyed idealism. What makes the drama less schematic than it sounds is the surprising transformation that occurs when Howard encounters Lennon on his own. The former Beatle reveals himself to be a regular guy, who even autographs one of his photos for Howard’s teenage daughter (the only soft spot in his crusty heart). Unfortunately, Howard’s reversal seems more of a plot twist than a genuine character turn, as does the rapid change in Daniel, who sheds his rainbow T-shirts and tight pants for ’80s-style designer blue suits and Reaganite ideology. (Given little more than an outline to work with, Dawes is continually upstaged by his costumes.) American society may inevitably repeat its mistakes, but Ears needs more nuanced observation of its duo to convince us onstage.