DURHAM — If theater might seem obsolete in this digital 3D era, it merely takes a production such as Manbites Dog Theater Company's stunning "God's Ear" to confirm theater's unique ability to create strange and poetic worlds that elude the more realistic mediums.
Although Jenny Schwartz's 2007 play concerns a couple's disintegrating marriage after their son's accidental death, it's not a straightforward plot. Instead, the playwright offers impressions of Ted and his wife Mel's psychological states and how they affect their young daughter, Lanie.
Schwartz offers constantly shifting vignettes: Ted's phone calls to Mel from airports and hotels, Ted's interactions with a flight attendant, fellow businessman and flirtatious divorcée, and Mel's motherly talks with Lanie. These last include Mel's conversations with the tooth fairy, come to visit Lanie, and an adult-sized G.I. Joe, representing the son's toys, now the daughter's playthings.
Schwartz's amazing feat is creating the dialogue with old sayings, hackneyed phrases and clichéd aphorisms, allowing the characters to cover their raw, inner emotions with familiar social inanities. The phrases are often repeated, looping back on themselves, transformed into hilarious or gripping variations. No description can convey the oddly intriguing, beautifully lyrical effect these lines have, just as quoting Mel's wistful hope for better times ("we'll see eye to eye, we'll dance cheek to cheek and we'll face the music") can't really evoke their power in context.
This daring technique needs subtle actors and a visionary director. Manbites Dog supplies both. Derrick Ivey's Ted is in a constantly off-balance daze, trying to maintain composure but heartbreakingly adrift. Meredith Sause plays Mel's mood swings and unravelings hauntingly, while Nicole Quenelle gives Lanie a moving, fragile innocence.
Katja Hill threatens to steal the show with her perfect comic timing as bar fly Lenora, her free-association monologues deliriously funny. Chris Burner is an amusing transvestite flight attendant, nicely contrasted with his talking action figure. Rajeev Rajendran's gung-ho businessman and Marcia Edmundson's spacey tooth fairy round out the high-level cast.
Director Jeff Storer's sure hand guides the play on an exhilarating rollercoaster ride, tightly paced but spotlighting hundreds of tiny insights. Adding an unexpectedly compelling element are Bart Matthews' songs, sung by the cast to his onstage accompaniment.
The short second act doesn't quite regain the momentum of the first, suggesting the piece would work better as a 90-minute one-act. That's a minor concern for one of the most rewarding evenings of contemporary theatre in the Triangle in the last several seasons.