Sarah Ruhl’s plays, like The Clean House and Eurydice, offer a bizarre combination of absurdism, fantasy, tragedy and realism, to varying degrees of effectiveness. Such is the risk a writer runs with experimental material. Unfortunately, Ruhl’s latest comedy, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons, offers many keenly observed bits that add up to little in the aggregate. Cell Phone is a bit like an antidote to McSorley’s, the famed Village ale house that demands its customers choose between light and dark beer; Ruhl attempts to sew together a work that is both dark and light. Jean is a mousy Holocaust Museum employee enjoying the last of her lobster bisque at a café (apparently abandoned by all other customers and any staff) whose reading reverie is interrupted by a constantly ringing cell phone. It turns out the phone’s owner, Gordon (T. Ryder Smith), has died quite suddenly while sitting upright at his table.
Next, Jean decides to start answering phone calls and adopt the phone as if it were her own, plunging her into an odd world full of those closest to Gordon, though none of them knew him too well. This is precisely the point of Ruhl’s play: how estranged individuals have become from one another, even as technology has seemingly made it easier to connect. Jean meets Gordon’s mother, Mrs. Gottlieb (the terrific Kathleen Chalfant); his wife, Hermia (Kelly Maurer); his mistress (Carla Harting); and underdog brother Dwight (David Aaron Baker).
And yet something is missing almost instantly in Cell Phone. Jean’s madcap decision to take Gordon’s phone and immerse herself among the people in his life, including a dangerously enigmatic career, never really jives. Ruhl doesn’t provide any type of “click” moment for everything to make sense, not even according to her own reality-defying sense of logic. As a result, events happen, but the play lacks its own sense of shape. If anything can happen in a work (and in this play, virtually anything does), there is little investment on the part of the audience to ascertain that events turn out a certain way.
This is especially true in a second act that seems to go off the rails, heading in every direction. It opens promisingly, allowing Smith a monologue in which he relives his last hours for the audience in a fascinating monologue, only to disappear again so that Jean can head to South Africa on a covert mission, initiate a chemistry-free romance with Dwight, and ultimately somehow visit heaven. It is not so much that these events defy rationality, but that they deliver no payoff.
In some ways, it appears that Anne Bogart’s smooth, organized direction was at odds with Ruhl’s unruly plot syntax. Bogart’s approach is clean and direct, yet the play meanders. Scene changes take a long time, making each scene very distinct when a play like this should flow more seamlessly from one scene to the next. As a result, Cell Phone feels like a free-flowing play trapped within a rigid structure. There is one smart technical choice: Brian H. Scott is to be praised for his effective lighting design.
Parker is an accomplished stage actress whose prowess has afforded her some enviable casting opportunities, including television’s Angels in America and Weeds and stage productions penned by such playwrights as David Auburn, William Inge and Craig Lucas. Her Jean, though, ranks nowhere near that list, despite a committed performance. Yes, she locates Jean’s insecurities and uses halting speech patterns and hesitant body language to create a woman that isn’t even present in her own life, but merely a shadow. It is a specific and smart performance, as is to be expected, but largely wasted in the overall scheme of the show. Chalfant (fun fact: she starred in the original Broadway cast of Angels) is similarly wasted as a boozy charlatan.
Ruhl is more adept when working with ideas than with people. It is fine to joke around about mortality and play a dead man onstage for laughs, but the rest of the ensemble feel equally lifeless, despite the best intentions of the actors portraying them. I expected Cell Phone to eventually arrive at some conclusion about how every individual leads a complex life, and whether intentionally or not, these lives affect those of others. But this show never makes that point, rendering death as something trivial, whether intentionally or not. Ruhl ultimately subverts her own themes about people being the driving forces in their own lives by creating a play in which things just happen. It’s the theatrical equivalent of an endless ringtone.