Ears on a Beatle
John Lennon mastered the deceptively simple genius of finding his own voice and speaking with it. He spoke it deftly and frequently enough to have made quite a few people uncomfortable over the years and some of these people were in rather prominent positions in the U.S. government. As a result, Lennon was trailed by the FBI for a number of years. Agents were assigned. Reports were written. A stage comedy about this could be done a lot of different ways. With Ears On A Beatle, playwright Mark St. Germain delivers a competent script that mixes some clever bits of comedy with an overall natural sense of drama about two FBI agents assigned to trail John Lennon. Under the direction of frequent Rep actor Jonathan Smoots, Next Act Theater closes its season with an enjoyable production of the hit comedy.
St. Germain chose for the play to follow the two FBI agents over an extended period of years. Next Act Producing Artistic Director David Cescarini plays Howard Ballentine, the older, more cynical agent who’s been on the job for a very long time. Ryan Schaubach plays younger, more idealistic FBI agent Daniel McClure, who goes undercover as a young hippie. This sets up a youth/experience theme that sees cynicism slowly change hands between generations as the ‘70s slowly fade-out into the ‘80s with the death of Lennon.
The story is painted in fairly broad strokes, but that doesn’t make it any less compelling than a more intricate plot might have been. For the most part, we focus on the two agents and their lives and their interactions with each other. Other characters appear in the production as rendered in dialogue. J. Edgar Hoover is a silent character in the play, making his presence known subtly throughout the story. It was Hoover’s FBI that opened the file on Lennon in the first place. Dialogue ranges from very obvious jokes about the nature of work at the FBI to very, very subtle moments passing between two agents in idle conversation. Lennon himself is evident in so much of the dialogue, but nowhere is he more present than St. Germain’s depiction of the era of which he was a part.
Cescarini brings his usual charisma to the role of Agent Ballentine. It’s a sympathetic portrayal of a public servant who just happens to be following around one of the most popular musicians of the 20th century. Cescarini has an impressive presence in any role and his performance here is no exception. His sympathetic portrayal of a practical conservative who comes to an understanding about the man he’s being paid to follow has a great deal of depth to it.
Schaubach plays McClure as the nice guy who comes from a proud military family but gets shifted off to the FBI instead. He seems to believe in the idealism of his country, but understands that there’s a moral code that it doesn’t always live up to. His idealism outweighs his patriotism, leaving his personality subject to a great deal of change as the ‘70s give way to the ‘80s.
The production is very tightly packed. All the action takes place on a Rick Rasmussen set that looks like a valley between vast towers of filing cabinets. Images and audio from Lennon’s life project onto the stage in dreamy phantom light providing lush context for the action. Later period Lennon plays in the space before and after the show and during intermission. Everything is aesthetically aligned to imply the presences of Lennon without him actually being there. It’s a very pleasant atmosphere for a comedy with a deeply pleasing amount of depth. VS
Next Act Theatre’s production of Ears On A Beatle runs now through April 29th at the Off-Broadway Theatre. Tickets can be purchased by calling the ticket office at 414-278-0765 or online at www.nextact.org.