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Dead Man's Cell Phone

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Mary-Louise Parker
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Not long into the first act of Sarah Ruhl's latest play Dead Man's Cell Phone, which just premiered at Playwrights Horizons, a funeral scene is interrupted by the chime of a phone in the audience. It might seem like it's coming from a few rows in front of you or perhaps just to your left, but it's unmistakably among the onlookers. When this happens again, just moments later, the ringing is coming from somewhere else, it's still from some indefinable yet uncomfortably close place in the house. It's a triumph of sound design.

Darron L. West's vivid soundscape is also the only triumph of this off-putting evening, which is too wrapped up in itself to tackle the giant questions of life and death it teases you with. Anne Bogart's cold production, which stamps out the usually unquenchable fire of its leading lady, Mary-Louise Parker, only cements the impression of a play whose creative batteries have run way down.

This likely won't surprise you if you've seen Ruhl's other plays in New York, The Clean House and Eurydice, which also traded on a neo-absurdist approach to storytelling that included mortality as a central figure. Twinkling comedy mingling with tingling tragedy and dozens of uncategorizable surprises is Ruhl's modus operandi, suggesting she realizes that death is so serious that it can only be treated as the most laughing of matters.

Whether you'll join in the guffawing is another matter. Dead Man's Cell Phone is not just yet another variation on Ruhl's typical theme, but also a sabotaging of an idea with infinite inherent potential. A story about a young woman named Jean (Parker) finding the abandoned phone of a man who died while eating his lunch in a café is full of promise, an unusual (and strangely underexplored) way of examining the legacies we leave behind when we die. Yet the outcome is neither somber nor comedic; it's closer to A Very Special Episode of Looney Tunes than a trenchant look at how being in constant communication has altered our lives in the 21st century.

Jean adopts the phone as her personal responsibility, answering it instinctively and using it to correct the myriad mistakes its owner Gordon (T. Ryder Smith) made in life. These include reconciling with his wife (Kelly Maurer), brother (David Aaron Baker), and mother (Kathleen Chalfant), as well as giving his devastated mistress (Carla Harting) a reason to go on living. Oh yes, and there are frequent detours into such pressing matters as the sensual qualities of stationery, the rehabilitative powers of the Ice Follies, and the intoxicating dangers of the international organ-donation black market.

How does everything fit together? Because it's all in a Sarah Ruhl play, it doesn't - dramatic elements are suspended randomly, like bits of fruit in half-solid gelatin. But there's nothing tantalizingly sweet about the latest of Ruhl's forays into the curiosities that populate the border between here and the afterlife.

The play's sheer cutesiness radiates forth in everything from an extended speech about the appeal of lobster bisque (Gordon's unfortunate dramatic centerpiece) to the performances, which rarely rise above the embarrassing. Parker lives in Jean's phlegm-flooded voice box, giving her the intensely pinched nasality of a mouse with a head cold, that she devotes no discernible energy to explaining the source or substance of her newfound obsession. Smith brings a brooding heaviness to Gordon that makes one wonder how he ever managed to never collapse under his own weight. Baker, Maurer, and Harting routinely struggle with finding the appropriate balance between comedic delivery and serious emotions, but are seldom successful at attaining either.

Only Chalfant, with her unforced, fiercely patrician delivery, taps into the comic rhythms of Ruhl's writing to extract some recognizable humanity. Chalfant approaches intimate scenes with caution, reflecting Gordon's mother's suspicious nature, but gradually reveals how the woman is coming to understand the mother-son bonds ran more than simply skin deep. Chalfant finds in the mother a grace and an elevation that unite her unrequited love for Gordon with more unruly traits, like her considering Charles Dickens as sacred scripture or her distaste for public cell-phone use.

She's the one officiating at Gordon's service when those rings erupt around you, and the first to chide the phones' imaginary owners. Her stepping downstage and taking you to task for all the cell phones that have ever rung at inappropriate times is the only serviceable bridge between the play and the real world. Chalfant also gets the show's best joke: When the hymn she requests, Rodgers & Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone," is also pierced by an insulting ringtone, she concludes, "You'll never walk alone. That's right. Because you'll always have a machine in your pants that might ring."

Maybe, but cell phones can be a boon on the rare occasions that the person calling has something vitally important to say. This Dead Man's Cell Phone, however, may as well stay set on silent.

Dead Man's Cell Phone
Through March 23
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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