Photo by Warner Munroe

ONE REASON WHY PEOPLE, IN THOSE RARE MOMENTS when they aren't on cell phones themselves, so dislike people who are, is the painful obviousness of the phone-talk. Just the other day, at a branch of Borders, a young woman sailed through the door, slim black electronic magic glued to her ear, and loudly announced, “I'm at Borders.” (The fact that we were all at Borders had apparently not occurred to her.)

In his new one-man play, One Zero, now being performed as part of Sardines: A Tin of Ten Minute Plays, put on by the Actors' Gang, Chris Bell makes good use of our latent hostility to the cell phone. Three of the playlets have already been performed when, just as the fourth is about to start, a phone bleats in the audience. (At the start of the evening, there had been a request over the PA that patrons switch off all portable phones, beepers, etc.) A young man, dressed in a black turtleneck sweater and slick gray suit, quickly answers it while signaling his apologies to the people around him — some of whom, judging by their expressions of incredulity on the night I attended, obviously didn't recognize the setup.

But One Zero isn't about a guy on a cell phone; it's about a guy who can't get off the thing. He's a salesman with two of them, and neither will stop ringing. As a result, he holds the theater audience hostage to the urgent mess of his life as he sells a bunch of senile drunks in Hawaii on the future of digital TV while frantically juggling calls from both an ex- and current girlfriend (respectively named Tuesday and Wednesday), and a therapist who's furious at him because, in nine days' time, he's moving to a Buddhist monastery in Japan — in order, of course, to get away from his cell phone.

Well-written though it is, Bell's monologue is a difficult thing to pull off. Once or twice it encroaches upon tedium, and in a 10-minute play, that's not good. But thanks to his carefully modulated acting and Ned Bellamy's well-paced direction, the work is nonetheless thought-provoking and moving, as well as funny.

JAMES BOYCE'S ORAL AGREEMENT, ON THE SAME BILL, toys with an older cultural apprehension, dedicated as it is to the proposition that all dentists are created evil. The sketch begins with some poor rumpled sucker named Ron (Brian T. Finney) spread-eagled in a clinic chair as a thuggish dentist (Kirk Ward, with slicked-back hair, meaty forearms and terrifying teeth) and his adoring hygienist (blond, lascivious Kate Mulligan, also with terrifying teeth) prance onto the stage to the tune of “Mini Skirt” from Cabaret Mañana. Soon, with the aid of a syringe the size of a turkey baster, the patient has been rendered virtually catatonic with Novocain. “How ya doin', Ron?” the dentist asks, grinning hatefully as the hygienist hands him a “weft quill pick with razor appendicle,” an instrument of pure torture headed inexorably toward Ron's lower sublingual molar.

Hilarious though it is, for those of us with less than perfect teeth, Oral Agreement is a little too close to the gumline to be merely amusing; it is also a convincing nightmare. The acting is perfectly attuned to the farcical spirit, with Finney particularly memorable as the hapless patient. Brent Hinkley's direction is also excellent, though he does allow the slapstick to go a little over the top.

None of the other skits is as enjoyable as these two, though Evie Peck's Nice Jewish Boys has some good writing and acting. Tim

Robbins' Vacation, about a man at a travel agency searching for a vacation no travel agency can provide — a change of heart — has some interesting moments, but seems like a first draft. Car Seens, staged like a series of extended outtakes from Jacques Tati's film Traffic, enacts the myriad gestures and moods of drivers. Mulligan's vocal renditions of “Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington” and “If Love Were All” nicely bracket the evening.

SARDINES: A Tin of Ten Minute Plays | At the ACTORS' GANG, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through May 22

LA Weekly