Mourning Sickness


According to the Bible, God does indeed have an ear. Perhaps two. At least eight psalms beg God to “give ear” or “turn your ear” to human prayer. But in Jenny Schwartz’s God’s Ear, if the Lord does turn his ear, it’s a deaf one.

We meet Mel (Christina Kirk) and Ted (Gibson Frazier) in a hospital waiting room after their young son has nearly drowned. In Schwartz’s lyrical, cyclical phrases, Mel explains, “His pupils are unreactive, they said. He doesn’t withdraw from pain, they said. The next 24 hours are critical. Or was it crucial? Or was it critical? Or was it crucial? He’s in critical condition, they said. Survival, they said. His chances of survival. They said, low.” Their son won’t survive this prologue.

The bulk of Schwartz’s script explores how the couple and their six-year-old daughter Lanie (played by the fully grown Monique Vukovic) manifest their grief. Dad dallies with floozies, Lanie dreams of being Helen Keller, Mom loses herself in clusters and spirals of sentences. The tooth fairy and a man-size G.I. Joe doll also appear. On Kris Stone’s set, these characters emerge from holes and hollows in the stage—suspended somewhere between daily life and an underworld of mourning.

God’s Ear marks Schwartz’s mainstage New York debut. She appears an indelibly clever playwright, possessed of linguistic playfulness and a lively sense of rhythm. She gives the actors lavish catalogues of cliché and homily. Kirk and Annie McNamara, as a bar girl, particularly excel at these logorrheic lists, offering metric and tonal variations that allow character to surface from the near-nonsense. When Kirk declares, “And we’ll cross that bridge. And bridge that gap. And bear that cross. And cross that t. And part that sea. And act that part. And turn that leaf. And turn that cheek,” you can hear a plea for sympathy and intimacy underlying the quotidian words.

Schwartz’s speech, though dexterous, sometimes seems a sort of security blanket—a coverlet she can unfurl to avoid actually scripting characters or emotional content. That characters and content do emerge testifies to the skills of the actors and the sensitivity director Anne Kauffman lends to this New Georges project, coaxing poignancy from such swarms of language. (Also poignant: Michael Friedman’s songs, especially the one about vodka.) Perhaps the success of this production will allow Schwartz the confidence to abandon some of her tricks and give voice to the agonies they disguise. Nevertheless, she’s a playwright to reckon with. Unlike the poor boy in her prologue, Schwartz’s chances of New York stage survival are very high.

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