"The Fat Lady Will Sing with Bells On": Jenny Schwartz's God's Ear
Two years ago, a friend called to inform me that he had just discovered the first great play of the 21st century—God’s Ear by Jenny Schwartz. I was skeptical—although I knew Jenny, I didn’t know the play, and his statement seemed overblown and rather alarmist. Why hurry to define the play in relation to the 21st century, which, after all, was only just beginning?
When I finally read God’s Ear, however, I understood what he meant. It wasn’t only that the play was terrific—there are already several terrific new plays that have been written in this century—it also felt like a play that could not have existed before this moment. God’s Ear is both formally inventive—Schwartz constructs it almost entirely out of found language, bits and pieces of clichés and misremembered idioms—and also psychologically grounded, a narrative arc that unfolds organically and with stunning emotional impact.
The story is characterized by an elegant simplicity: Mel and Ted survive a family tragedy only to discover that grief has corroded every aspect of their marriage and left them stranded in a wilderness of words. They communicate through half-remembered platitudes and half-hearted puns, as if they were wading knee-high in a garbage bin of discarded clichés. Burdened by both a paucity and surfeit of language, Ted chats up strangers in airport lounges, and Mel volleys one-liners with their ten-year-old daughter, Lanie.
I have a question.
I have an answer.
What’s a call-girl?
Ask your father.
Call him up and ask him.
Am I dead?
What part of stunned don’t you understand?
I bet he’s asleep.
I bet he’s with a call-girl.
I wish I were dead.
I wish I were Helen Keller.
How do you feel?
Like a recent college grad.
I feel like I need a new wardrobe.
There’s no need to panic, but you certainly shouldn’t relax.
Director Anne Kaufman, who is mounting the New Georges premiere, collaborates consistently with groundbreaking contemporary playwrights—among them Anne Washburn, Adam Bock, and Jordan Harrison—and she contextualizes Schwartz’s work as a kind of new work she calls “neorealism.”
“While the language can feel alienating, I feel that it’s actually closer to our speech patterns than we at first recognize,” Kaufman says. “In addition, I think our generation of writers has been able to resurrect metaphor in the theater. In the case of Jenny’s play, she takes it a step further. The grief this family is experiencing…is so extreme that metaphor becomes reality.”
According to Kaufman, Schwartz’s precise rhythms carry the “emotional DNA of the play,” and she and the actors find that following the rhythm is the best way to discover what they need to know about a particular moment—a moment which may be at once funny and devastating. “The humor is incredibly dark … and it’s completely human,” Kaufman says. “Because Jenny is obsessed with language and its hard-edged limits, I think a lot of the humor comes from its misuse, or how its misuse actually cuts deeper and gets at something stronger that we recognize as truth.”
We almost lost him though.
He swallowed a box of—
You’re telling me.
But we pumped his stomach, so…
Where I come from, they’re called thumbtacks, pushpins, thumbtacks, pushpins.
He swallowed a box of Wheat Thins.
You must be very proud.
Schwartz is fortunate to be collaborating with actors who not only understand her rhythms but with whom she has a shared history. Gibson Frazier, Annie McNamara, Monique Vukovic, and Christina Kirk have all collaborated on her plays in the past. Frazier, who plays Ted, articulates the process of discovering the hidden depths the play:
“You think, it’s cute, smart, funny, clever, but what does it get you? But by putting all of the scenes together, you realize that [behind the play] there is someone deftly aware of the theatrical experience she is trying to carve out,” he says. “While the structure and even the execution may seem deceiving, I think the experience that the audience is going to be left with is something much more profound than anything they could possibly imagine when they first sat down.”
The word games that are scattered throughout God’s Ear are indeed deceptively charming. As phrases collide and accumulate, there are sneaky subversions and slips of tongue, tiny jokes to savor along the way. However, this linguistic playfulness inevitably turns dangerous. Innocuous platitudes morph into sinister truths. Words are perilous for Schwartz’s characters, and ultimately out of their control. They lead directly to the heart of an unanswerable pain.
What’s frost bite?
Does it have to do with teeth?
Is my guess as good as yours?
I stepped on an action figure.
I stepped on another.
I’m going to take them outside and bury them.
Can I help?
Can I help?
Help me help myself.
Schwartz’s rigorous vision is honed in a painstakingly slow and rather weird process: she rewrites the entire play from memory each time she works on it. “I think my process of typing the play from the beginning over and over again, whenever I work on the play, helps me to figure out a formal structure that supports the emotions,” she says. “It also helps me to get the language into my body…When I get too formal, I usually feel like I’m taking a wrong turn.”
The result of this kind of active meditation is a marriage of form and feeling that creates a captivating work of art. God’s Ear does feel like it belongs to the 21st century. Neither absurdist, nor post-modern, nor conventionally realistic, it is a bold experiment that uses these traditions to create a theatrical experience entirely of the moment.
And then 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.
New Georges’s production of God’s Ear by Jenny Schwartz runs from May 2–June 2 at the East 13th Street Theatre (136 E. 13th Street). www.smarttix.com or 212.868.4444
Heidi Schreck lives in Brooklyn and is the proud member of two playwright collectives, Vinegar Tom Players and Machiqq. Her most recent play Creature was developed in the 20052006 SoHo Rep Lab.
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