"Knowledge is power" is one of the key resonating lines Mark St. Germain has inserted into his new play, Ears On A Beatle, which is now playing at the DR2 Theatre.
That statement - like many others in the play, equal parts true and trite - is spoken by FBI agent Howard Ballantine (Dan Lauria) to his younger, less-experienced partner Daniel McClure (Bill Dawes). In the information age, the play argues, the greatest threats come not from what they know about you or what you know about them, but how ethically or thoughtfully the knowledge on either side is applied.
True, this message is timely in any era - haven't conspiracies and political movements, whether hidden in the shadows or visible in plain sight, been a part of governed society since time immemorial? But it's territory so well-worn that, without a more interesting treatment, it seems to lack relevance; Bug proved earlier this season that similar messages can still be stirred up in vibrant and unexpected ways. Here, St. Germain wraps up potentially interesting intrigue and suspicion in a predictable package, paying lip service to the power of the use (or misuse) of information without making the resulting play compelling.
The subject matter starts juicy enough: Howard and Daniel are charged with investigating John Lennon in the months leading up to the 1972 Republican and Democratic National Conventions. The fear is that Lennon might exercise undue influence on his fan base of millions of young people in a way that could alter the course of political history. Yet, by play's end, Howard and Daniel have both been influenced by Lennon. Howard starts cool-headed and unwilling to risk his cover by personalizing his subject, while Daniel begins as an idealist still believing that public and private images are identical. You can see where this is going.
Its innately formulaic structure is the primary flaw with Ears On A Beatle - this flaw pervades St. Germain's attempts to equate America under Nixon with America under George W. Bush, the characters' emotional arcs, and even a great deal of the dialogue. Events are blatantly foreshadowed, vague philosophies about the FBI's roles in world affairs are espoused, and the FBI seems to fully embody (and play on) our darkest fears about organizations we don't understand.
St. Germain does attempt to humanize Howard and Daniel, but at the FBI's expense: it slowly erodes both men's family lives and requires no price be paid when each commits serious transgressions in their professional obligations and responsibilities. The closest we see is their disillusionment with their respective positions; that suggests the real play St. Germain wanted to write, but so much time is spent preparing for these revelations in by-the-numbers ways, the points are diluted when they finally are made.
St. Germain also directed the piece, and while it's well-paced and staged, it's emotionally sedate, drawing too much from the conspiracy theory scenes and not enough from its characters. Lauria and Dawes aren't to blame - they do a generally fine job with what they're given, though Howard's journey seems more complete in Lauria's portrayal. (The play covers a time span of approximately eight years, and Dawes is less convincing playing his character almost a decade down the line.) Eric Renschler's set is ingenious, based on a few walls of filing cabinets that hide closets, doors, or other set pieces, and Daniel Ordower's lighting helps transform them into a number of different locations.
As the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. play important parts in the story, conspiracy theorists are likely to have a field day with Ears On A Beatle. But St. Germain unintentionally proves his thesis that knowledge is power by providing too much of it in his writing without ever quite discovering how to satisfactorily tell one story from beginning to end.
Ears On A Beatle