Talkin’ Broadway: Ears on a Beatle

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Michael Kaye and Steven Barkhimer

Sometimes, plays come along at exactly the right time to strike a resonance with current events, adding an extra layer of meaning to the lives of the characters portrayed on stage. Other plays feel as though the author started with the question “How can I write about situation x?” and never quite come to life beyond their topicality. Unfortunately, Mark St. Germain’s Ears on a Beatle, now enjoying its Boston premiere at the Lyric Stage, falls into the latter category.

The one-act play focuses on two FBI agents, veteran Howard Ballantine (Steven Barkhimer) and newcomer Daniel McClure (Michael Kaye), assigned to keep tabs on John Lennon in the 1970s. Although based in fact – the actual FBI files on Lennon are reproduced both in the lobby and the program book to drive this home – the story of the two agents is entirely St. Germain’s creation, and it shows. The entire first half of the play feels like a series of sketches from a beginners’ playwriting class on exposition. Each scene quickly reveals necessary information about Ballantine’s background or McClure’s increasing entanglements with the people he’s supposedly studying, before moving on to the next scene and the next plot point. One of the simplest rules of writing for the theatre is “show, don’t tell,” yet most of the first half of the play consists of the characters telling each other about things that happened between scenes with other characters we never meet. Still, director Paula Ramsdell keeps the proceedings light, making the most of Barkhimer’s comic timing and deadpan delivery to divert our attention from the plodding plotting. 

Kaye has a hard time matching Barkhimer’s skill with a punchline, hampered by a silly hippie outfit and the lion’s share of the expository burden. At the performance I attended, Kaye was still having trouble getting all of the dialogue out, but with the dialogue St. Germain provided, who can blame him? Still, the pair manages to keep the play moving at a healthy tempo, and if the emotion doesn’t quite build to the climactic, central scene – when, naturally, the older agent reveals he may have more in common with the rookie than he let on – at least the rhythm does.

What follows is something between an epilogue and a second act, in which we revisit these characters towards the end of John Lennon’s life. This part of the play is where St. Germain is finally able to reap the payoff of all his sundry plot points and put his issues on the table, and surprisingly, Michael Kaye makes this meditation on privacy and safety, individual freedom and the greater good seem almost dramatic. Stripped of his wig and fringe, Kaye seems much more at ease with the older version of his character. However, despite the best effort of both actors, these “characters” remain little more than collections of plot points. And when played on a simple stage whose main decoration is a wall full of pictures of Lennon interspersed with pictures of ears and eyes, subtlety just isn’t in the cards. Both the program note for this production as well as the publicity surrounding the original New York mounting of this show hammers home the connections between the surveillance of John Lennon in the play and the current Patriot Act. One almost wishes the veil of “John Lennon” was dropped so we could just hear the lecture on the Patriot Act St. Germain really wants to give and get on with our evenings. And this is a shame, because there is certainly an interesting story to be found in the FBI’s files on John and Yoko. Unfortunately,Ears on a Beatle is not that story.

Ears on a Beatle at the Lyric Stage, 140 Clarendon Street in Boston, now through November 20th. Performance times are: Wednesday & Thursday at 7:30 PM; Friday and Saturday at 8:00 PM; Saturday matinee at 4:00 PM; Sunday matinee at 3:00 PM. Wednesday matinees at 2:00 PM on October 27th and November 17th only. Tickets range from $19 to $43. $10 student rush tickets are available a half hour prior to each performance. For tickets or information, call the Lyric Stage box office at (617) 437-7172, or visit their website at
Photo: Lyric Stage

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