The trouble with sudden death is that it often makes zero sense. When people unexpectedly drop out of your life for good, you can't make sense of their absence. You entertain fantasies that they'll reappear as suddenly as they left. The word "loss" doesn't quite capture the permanence of death, but in a way it illustrates the logic of grief: For those left behind, the dead aren't gone so much as misplaced.
Joan Didion explored this phenomenon in The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir about living through the aftermath of her husband's sudden death from a heart attack. Didion was aware that he was gone for good, but she kept trying to look on a bright side that simply didn't exist. The impulse toward optimism became a kind of derangement. Why, for instance, should she get rid of his shoes? Wouldn't he need them if he came back?
Jenny Schwartz' new play, God's Ear, explores similar territory, but it's a long way from Didion's trademark detachment. In Schwartz' version of the world, grief is a kind of prolonged fever-dream, a surreal state in which logic gives way to mania. That may sound like a pretty grim evening at the theater, but it's actually bracing and funny — a hugely inventive exploration of how two shattered people attempt to make sense of their fragmented lives.
Schwartz doesn't engineer a plot so much as create a rich, imaginative landscape, with her characters restlessly shifting among times and places. As the play opens, Mel (Beth Wilmurt) mourns the accidental drowning of her son. Her 6-year-old daughter, Lanie (Nika Ezell Pappas), finds comfort in regular visits from the Tooth Fairy (Melinda Meeng), while her husband, Ted (Ryan O'Donnell), loses himself in endless business travel. He meets other lonely travelers in hotel bars, several of whom have lost children of their own. As people come and go on Lisa Clark's chilly iceberg set, they all seem to be grieving for one reason or another, though they all seem to grieve alone.
What's miraculous about the play is its superabundance of humor. Keith Pinto turns in a brilliant dual performance as a transvestite flight attendant and a life-size G.I. Joe action figure. (According to the latter, "To be all that you can be — that is the question.") Joe Estlack performs a fantastic little ditty about items you're not allowed to sell on eBay (one of several exceptional songs by composer Daveen DiGiacomo). And Zehra Berkman shows up as a boozy Miss Lonelyhearts in a hotel lounge, telling Ted that she loves him "from the bottom of what used to be my heart."
Schwartz is clearly a sucker for aggressive wordplay. Her characters spit out torrents of words, finding comfort in the act of speaking rather than the content of speech. Confronted with a broken reality, they retreat into an endless loop of alternate realities. (As Mel puts it, "There's an echo, can you hear it? There's an echo, can you hear it?")
The director, Erika Chong Shuch, is best known to Bay Area audiences as a choreographer, and God's Ear marks her first attempt to direct a full-on play. Her instinct for movement plays off nicely against Schwartz' frenetic text: As the characters talk in circles around their grief, they bustle about the stage as if staying put would be a form of surrender. The result can be maddening to watch, but then nobody ever said that grief should be tidy or pleasant.
For all that, God's Ear doesn't quite resonate. Schwartz' intent is not necessarily to move the audience — she's not interested in a conventional portrayal of grief — but I do wish that the play made more of an emotional impression. She subjects us to a ceaseless barrage of words and sensations over the course of 90 minutes, but all that intensity never really translates into immediacy. Her characters hover at a safe distance from the audience. They're more or less recognizable as human beings, but they're unlikely to follow anyone out of the theater.
"The world [Schwartz] opens up to us is one in which no one says what they feel," Shuch says in her director's note. "Through the avoidance of full, clear, emotional disclosure, we get closer to the guts of what it actually feels like to be overwhelmed with grief." I would like to agree with that, but I can't quite go there. It's true that Schwartz does an admirably thorough job of avoiding the usual conventions and clichés that you'd expect from a play about the death of a child. Nothing in God's Ear made me groan or roll my eyes. No one "rides off into the horseshit," as one character puts it. At the same time, nothing in the play made me lose any sleep. As a technical exercise, it's enormously inventive and impressive; as a chronicle of human experience, it feels somehow hollow.
But perhaps that's exactly what Schwartz is aiming for. After all, to grieve is to experience a kind of hollowness — to undergo the slow process of wrapping your head around an inconceivable absence. "There's no need to panic," the transvestite flight attendant says, "but you certainly shouldn't relax." She can say that again: God's Ear is bold and smart enough to provoke a huge range of responses, but relaxation simply isn't one of them.