The walls have ears


Kurt Johnson in <i>Earshot</i>: Hark! I hear Mennonites having sex!

Kurt Johnson in Earshot: Hark! I hear Mennonites having sex!

Rated 3.0

Earshot is a quirky, wincing one-man show built around an eccentric character with phenomenally acute ears. You could call it a comedy of confinement, with actor Kurt Johnson pacing the floor of a dingy apartment, carrying on a long, witty monologue as he’s assaulted by the sound of jingling keys, mindless humming and other intrusive reminders that he’s surrounded by kooky neighbors on every side. He hears too much and it’s driving him crazy, and that situation provides the seed of the plot for the laughs, as the poor man rails away at unseen people behind walls, floor and ceiling.

B Street regulars will recognize the imprint of Canadian playwright Morris Panych, who likes his humor dark, brittle and ironic. (The B Street has previously staged Panych’s Vigil, about a woman on her deathbed who just won’t die, and Lawrence and Holloman, in which grimaces and giggles develop from a character’s progressive mutilation.) Panych’s language in Earshot is richer and more resonant than we’ve heard at the B Street in some time; he also works in a few bits of sharp social commentary from a Canadian perspective.

The show provides the biggest role to date for popular local actor Kurt Johnson, who talks non-stop for an hour and 15 minutes. And it’s good to see him showcased in a solo show. The role is something of a departure for him—the top of Johnson’s head is shaved, and he spends about half the show rambling around in his underwear like a reclusive gnome.

Critical to the show’s success is the sound design by Sara Jane Schmeltzer—a steady string of precisely timed rattles, footsteps and thuds offstage, as well as recorded noises. But on opening night, the show occasionally hesitated over scene transitions—the lights would sometimes go down while a situation still felt incomplete, leaving a small lurch in the momentum. It’s possible that Johnson and director John Lamb were still shaping some of the details as the show opened, or perhaps Panych’s odd-but-engaging stylings were proving unexpectedly hard to handle.

Earshot is not a mainstream comedy leading to a tidy, comfortable conclusion—and that may be a little unsettling for some who have grown accustomed to more easily absorbed entertainment at this theater. But the playwright’s off-center viewpoint, Johnson’s energetic performance and the smart use of sound make this an unusual show that pays off with its own peculiar rewards.