Jenny Schwartz’s “God’s Ear” completes an accidental trilogy of recent Off Broadway plays that masterfully use language without ever trusting it to tell the truth. Last October, the office workers in Adam Bock’s “The Thugs” made endless small talk to avoid discussing the brutal violence in their building, and in November, Anne Washburn’s “The Internationalist” evoked the loneliness of miscommunication by sending an American businessman to a country where everyone speaks gibberish. “God’s Ear,” produced by New Georges and borrowing creatives from the Bock and Washburn productions, demonstrates how cliches let us skate across the surface of personal tragedy.
Schwartz’s play centers on a broken family that spews meaningless phrases instead of saying the words that might force them to feel as they try to avoid dealing with the death of a child and the subsequent collapse of their lives.
Though less polished than “The Thugs” or “The Internationalist,” both play and production captivate by asking us to listen in an unusual way. Characters deliver a few lines of real information and then skitter away from it with long, repetitive speeches about nothing in particular. But eventually, the phrases they repeat or the emotions they use to say them take a definite shape. Even without moment-to-moment clarity, a larger sense of grief can be easily understood.
Consider Ted (Gibson Frazier). His son drowns; he becomes estranged from his wife Mel (Christina Kirk); he escapes into business travel, which makes him a stranger to his young daughter Lanie (Monique Vukovic); he keeps meeting other people who have had children who died; and he eventually starts an affair.
It takes most of the play to learn that information, but the impact of what’s happening to Ted is clear in an early speech to a flight attendant. “I just want my son to grow up and be happy,” he says. “I just want my son to grow old and be safe.” Gibson chants the standard list of parental dreams like he wants the ideas to protect him. By the time he says stranger things — “I just want my son to defy the laws of nature” — there’s a palpable desperation in his small talk.
Schwartz enhances her surreal words by placing them in a world that fuses every coping method in the family. Ted has an affair with Lenora (Annie McNamara), but she can look up from their illicit kisses and speak directly to Mel. Little Lanie seeks advice from the Tooth Fairy (Judith Greentree) or G.I. Joe (Matthew Montelongo), but the pair have wisdom for the adults, too.
Director Anne Kauffman (“The Thugs”) unites these elements with a subdued, gentle tone. Movement tends to be slow and fluid, and the actors, though emotionally present, all have a tranquil energy. There’s often a sense of floating through a dream.
Design supports that notion as well. The warm blue washes of Tyler Micoleau’s lighting and the puzzle box surprises of Kris Stone’s simple set — a blue floor full of trap doors — remind us we’re in an unreal limbo.
The dream state is an apt metaphor for how we can float above our lives after great loss. It also makes the play’s effluvia easier to accept. Yes, “God’s Ear” would be sharper if Schwartz shortened her most rambling speeches or if Michael Friedman’s unmemorable incidental songs were excised, but every dream has its random pieces.
Ultimately, the most satisfying irony is that the play transforms familiar strategies for enduring grief into theatrical fantasies. Just like Joan Didion in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Schwartz knows that unbearable news can make us turn our daily lives into distracting flights of fancy.