Dead Man's Cell Phone

For about half of Act 1, Sarah Ruhl’s comedy clings (as though to an intriguing but weightless straw) to the situation of a young single woman, Jean (Margaret Welsh, perky and bright-eyed), discovering that the reason her neighboring diner (Lenny Von Dohlen) at a sidewalk café won’t answer his constantly ringing cell phone is that he’s just died. It’s not until mid-act, in a greeting card shop where she and the dead man’s brother, Dwight (Andrew Borba), find their awkward, tender courtship constantly interrupted by that invasive cell phone, that the intrusion of technology on our privacy and humanity starts to emerge. In that same scene the pair discover how words on paper are so much more durable than words in air, and the play’s glorious, unfulfilled promise emerges, yet it remains unfulfilled. A rarity without a cell phone of her own, Jean becomes enamored not only with the phone that she filches and keeps answering with a growing addiction but also to inventing stories about the man’s last words (which she never actually heard because she discovered him dead) — in order to comfort his family members and one mistress (Nike Doukas, speaking in the style of an SNL sketch with an indiscernible Continental dialect). We eventually learn that the dead man also made up stories, ostensibly to “comfort” people but really to hide his secret, shady occupation, which was the source of his prodigious wealth. Somebody in the play points this out as a kind of irony. Somebody points out almost every bit of cleverness being strived for, which is a troubling indication of how the play’s pleasingly ethereal notions must be explained because they’re too muddled to stand on their own. That both Jean and the dead man comfort people with lies is intended as a literary flirtation with the larger purposes of fiction, legend and myth — themes that have earned Ruhl her well-earned reputation. But the gaping distinction between one character using lies to hide his present occupation, and another using lies to invent a past, are as broad as a barn door that remains unopened. Instead, Ruhl’s play walks around it and takes snapshots from any angle in the hopes that the resulting collage will pass for a cogent story and a portrait of our times. Rather, we get a sketchy treatment of ideas so beautiful, they deserve better. Director Bart DeLorenzo amps up the caricatures of the women in the dead man’s family — dressing his aristocratic mother (Christina Pickles) in bright red, and draping her with a fox; while his widow (Shannon Holt) emerges as a bundle of perfectly executed comic twitches. The scenes’ broad style strains against the classical romantic streak that blazes through the courtship between Jean and Dwight. DeLorenzo got to the heart of similar themes with far more unity in Donald Margulies’ Shipwrecked... at this same venue, which makes it hard to discern whether responsibility lies with him, or with Ruhl’s perfunctory theatrical treatment of her lovely imagination.
Sat., Sept. 27, 7:45 p.m.; Tuesdays-Fridays, 7:45 p.m.; Saturdays, Sundays, 2 & 7:45 p.m. Starts: Sept. 27. Continues through Oct. 12, 2008


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