Here’s your dilemma: You’re in a cafe with a lone stranger whose incessantly ringing cellphone is bugging you. He’s the most annoying jerk in the world until you walk over to give him a piece of your mind, and you realize he is, in fact, deceased. What do you do? Perhaps not what Jean, the protagonist in Dead Man’s Cell Phone, does. What she does is a little bit bizarre, just odd enough for us to stay curious. This provocative modern comedy in the intimate Clarence Brown Lab Theatre is light but sharp, and consistently interesting.
For years, I’ve thumbed Clarence Brown’s programs ragged, looking for just a little something about the play itself. How old is it? Where did it debut? What about the person who wrote it? Clarence Brown’s always mum. Why even mention the playwright’s name if we don’t have any context? What your program won’t tell you is that this play debuted in 2007, caused a bit of a stir in New York’s jaded theater community, and is one of the best-regarded works of young playwright Sarah Ruhl.
Ruhl, born in 1974, is a recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant, and the subject of a lengthy profile, four years ago, by The New Yorker’s chief theater critic, John Lahr, who seems fascinated with his unusual subject. He described Dead Man’s Cell Phone as “a mad pilgrimage of an imagination as it is invaded and atomized by the phone.” Lahr quotes Ruhl’s interesting perspectives on electronic communications. “We’re less connected to the present,” she says. “No one is where they are. There’s absolutely no reason to talk to strangers anymore. You connect to people you already know. But how well do you know them?”
As it opens, the production tips us off that this is no ordinary reality, as four eerie, stoic figures in white step out to offer the obligatory theater announcements. They may be guardian angels, or asylum orderlies, or both. They serve as a mostly silent chorus for what’s to come.
Jean is a woman of “almost 40” with no obvious life. Ashleigh Stockel’s portrayal of her is, at first, awkwardly over the top, silent-movie style. In fact, the beginning of the first scene seems like an updated version of a Chaplin gag. In a café, a stranger’s cellphone keeps going off, unanswered, as Jean is trying to write a thank-you card. (The fact that she is writing thank-you cards is the play’s only suggestion that she has any human relationships outside of the ones into which she’s about to leap.) It seems as if it’s building up toward a punchline, but the punchline is that this particularly annoying man is dead.
But he keeps getting cellphone calls, as dead people often do. This paradox preoccupies Jean. She adopts the dead man’s cellphone, takes care of it as you would a foundling, answers calls and does her best to stand in for the dead man, whose name is Gordon Gottlieb. By answering his cellphone she meets his family, including his formidable mother, played by Carol Mayo Jenkins, Knoxville’s highest-regarded working pro. She delivers some of the best lines: Mrs. Gottlieb is not religious, but needs churches because she would not host a funeral “in a low-ceilinged room.” Later, she says, to Jean, “You’re very comforting—like a very small casserole.”
Jean uses her cellphone connection, and presumed connection to Gordon, to console the family, in well-meaning if dishonest and sometimes naive ways. She also learns Gordon had a complicated life. Gordon was involved in a sort of sleazy, sort of admirable international trafficking of a certain rare commodity. He also has a wife and a mistress, both of whom turn out to be pretty complex characters, themselves. (Wife Hermia, played by Sarah Jordan Stout, has a pretty hilarious scene with a salt shaker.) And Jean realizes she’s sort of in love with the dead guy, herself, but the play also involves a candlelit romance with Gordon’s brother Dwight, played by Ted Kitterman.
We eventually meet the dead man, played by Ricardo Birnbaum, in a sort of surreal flashback. I first thought I heard notes of mid-Atlantic pretension in his accent, but, silly me, grad student Birnbaum is originally from Madrid.
With the major exception of Jenkins, the cast is made up of theater students, albeit some with crowded resumes at Clarence Brown and beyond. None seem like amateurs.
Directed by Casey Sams, the play is mainly just interesting, observational comedy, with little insights into modern life, and the paradoxes of the new communications technology that joins us closer together while offering new kinds of loneliness and separation.
Its ending involves some muddled and unconvincing suggestions about the eternal nature of love, but overall it’s a smart, bright play whose unanswered questions don’t spoil the metaphysical fun.