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|A CurtainUp Review
Ears On a Beatle
--- Review of Ears On a Beatle During its Barrington Stage Premiere ---
By Elyse Sommer
The "ears" of the title belong to jaded, middle-aged FBI agent Howard Ballantine (Dan Lauria) and his novice assistant Daniel McClure (Bill Dawes). The "beatle" on whom their ears, eyes and surveillance bugs are trained is John Lennon, the rock star whose music and persona fired up a whole generation of young peace and love dedicated idealists.
While Ballantine and McClure are playwright Mark St. Germain's inventions, their surveillance of Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono is based on the now well-known fact that Lennon's love-and-peace message was sufficiently threatening to the politically conservative Nixon's administration to build up a secret file aimed at deporting Lennon for fear that his influence would affect the newly enfranchised voters and Lennon devotees. Thus Ears On a Beatle, which is being given its world premiere at Barrington Stage's smaller venue, is a docu-drama carved from a true chapter in American history that nowadays strikes some painfully familiar notes.
Fortunately, Mr. St. Germain is a good enough playwright not to rely solely on his source material (Barrington Stage audiences are invited to view copies of the now declassified FBI files on display in the lobby). Instead he has given the two agents intriguing back stories and has integrated them skillfully with historical information that spans nine years, from December 1971 (when Lennon and Yoko Ono moved to New York) to December 1980 (when Lennon was shot in front of his home in the Dakota apartment house). What's more, despite raising numerous weighty issues (civil liberties, privacy, abortion) and illustrating the corrosive effect of working within a deceitful system on McClure as well as Ballantine, the ninety-minute intermissionless play gallops along entertainingly and with a good deal of humor.
As Lennon was as much a sociological as a musical icon, the two agents' relationship is more than the usual police buddy set-up. The chemistry between the actors is potent, as are their individual performances.
Dan Lauria's marvelously rounded portrayal of Ballantine makes it easy to see something of his young apprentice in the rumpled and grown immune to idealism senior agent. A monologue that alone is worth the price of admission has Ballantine detailing how he, disguised as a telephone repairman pretending to check Lennon's phone for bugging devices (which have indeed been installed by the FBI), ended up breaking the unbreakable rule of never personalizing a subject. He refuses Lennon's offer for a cup of tea, but accepts a beer -- and comes away a fan and with an autograph for his teenaged daughter. This the man who hates one of his hit songs, "Imagine", because "it's like he wrote it in finger paint."
Bill Dawes (whose work, unlike Lauria's, I'm familiar with (via Burning Blue and Gross Inecency) is equally impressive in depicting McClure, the golden boy who has joined the FBI because he loves his country but as an alternative to following his brother into the army to please the father he jokingly calls "General-Dad." He too breaks the rule about personalizing a subject -- in his case, a girl he impregnates and then has to trick into marriage. As each of his beliefs comes under assault, he begins to see his job as "just digging deeper and deeper into people until I find the worst in them." McClure doesn't become paunchy and seedy but his transformation into a sleek company-man version of Ballantine is just as dramatically distressing.
The men's personal relationships with wives and children further emphasize the characters as mirror images of soured idealism. Their reunion, though somewhat too melodramatic, ends with a bang -- literally.
St. Germain has directed his play with style, with a strong assist from Eric Renschler's clever set which is dominated by a trompe l'oeil wall of FBI file cabinets that reflect the duplicity of the activities being chronicled by regularly popping open to reveal tape recorders, phones, etc. It's too bad that this versatile backdrop could not have accommodated the desks which are now rolled on and off stage noisily and distractingly by prop handlers. The documentary flavor is bolstered by voiceovers that include Dick Cavett, host of the popular TV talk show on which guest John Lennon claimed the FBI was tapping his phone line in 1972. If you don't recognize some of the others, not to worry. The flavor that will linger is from St. Germain's story and the two fine actors bringing it to life.
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