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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
Dead Man's Cell Phone

You decided to help a dead man because only a dead person can be 100% good. When you're alive, the goodness rubs off you if you so much as leave the house. Life is essentially a very large brillo pad—Gordon.
Mary Louise Parker
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
If playwright Sarah Ruhl's cellphone rings, it's a good bet it will be from some prestigious theater company wanting to produce or commission her work. She's one of the hottest and most acclaimed young writers working in the theater today. Her plays have received top quality productions all over the country. (Curtainup has covered productions of her Clean House three times). She has also been awarded a MacArthur genius grant, and while "genius" is a debatable tag, she does have a vivid imagination and a knack for eminently quotable dialogue.

In Dead Man's Cellphone Ruhl has come up with a timely concept with which to explore love and death. To give this world premiere at Playwrights Horizon a big boost the cast is headed by Mary Louise Parker. Parker, currently best known as Nancy in the showtime series Weeds, has the stage chops (How I Learned to Drive, Proof, Prelude to a Kiss, Reckless) to make her the ideal cell phone pickerupper, a lovably quirky eccentric named Jean.

The play starts off with a comic bang— or, more to the point, the sound of a cellphone ringing. It belongs to a man (T. Ryder Smith) sitting at a cafe table at one corner of the stage. He lets the phone ring, and ring, and ring. This is clearly annoying the woman (Mary Louise Parker) sitting at a table at the opposite end of the stage. There's something peculiar about the way the man sits there. He's motionless but doesn't look particularly dead. But hey, the play you're watching is called Dead Man's Cell Phone . . . so, yes, he is dead — and when the woman sitting at the other table gets no response to her "Aren't you going to get that? " she ambles over to his table and answers the phone. Once the realization that she is indeed answering a dead man's cellphone takes root, Jean has some kind of instant epiphany that makes her feel connected to Gordon (she learns his name from one of the callers). That connection takes the form of a promise to stay with him as long as he needs her and then vowing to comfort his loved ones and try to make the memory of him live on positively in their minds and hearts.

The outcome of that vow takes up the rest of the first act. Parker is deliciously, weirdly ditzy — and so are the "loved ones" she meets and "comforts" with whatever made-up conversations and e-mailed missives it takes to surround Gordon's memory in a positive halo: Gordon's imperious mother, Mrs. Gottlieb (Kathleen Chalfant); his mistress (Carla Harting); his erstwhile Danish Figure Skater wife Hermia (Kelly Maurer, who actually looks a bit like Sonia Henie); his charming but underappreciated brother Dwight (David Aaron Baker)—at least he's underappreciated until Jean comes to dinner.

The first act ends with a brief image, the equivalent of what the British Women's magazine I once wrote serial romantic novels for called "the curtain" that would leave readers panting for the next installment. Since T. Ryder Smith is not an actor to play just a human prop to get things moving, it is inevitable that he will return at some point, so it's hardly a spoiler to tell you that the act one closing image is of Gordon. Given the basic premise, you can also count on Ruhl to spice up much of the play's dialogue with comments about cellphones. The elegant and very proper looking Mrs. Gottlieb, for example, inelegantly interrupts her eulogy to her son when a cell phone goes off at the back of the church with "Could some one please turn their fucking cell phone off". She goes on to comment that the sacred places left in the world today where there is no ringing are the theater, the church and the toilet, though she posits that the last mentioned might not be all that sacred. My favorite Mrs. Gottlieb line, however, is when she asks Jean to stick around because she finds her very comforting, "like a very small casserole."

Unfortunately, the second act fails to live up to the promise of the first. It begins well enough, with a terrific monologue from Gordon. The mots keep flying. But when Ruhl, who has in the past indulged in a fondness for magic realism, detours into metaphysical territory, what began as a potentially witty comedy about love, death and socially invasive inventions like (what else?) cell phones cries out for a stronger less messy rewrite.

Anne Bogart's staging supports the fancifully surreal aspects of the story but it is somehow too icily stylistic and off-putting. G. W. Mercier's scenic and costume design is, however, an especially vital asset. Mercier's costumes for Ms. Chalfant shrewdly characterize her as a woman locked into an era when Manhattans were the cocktails of choice and women were not averse to fur stoles complete with heads and tails.

Deadman's Cellphone will be most likely to please theater goers and critics who have elevated Ms. Ruhl to the playwriting equivalent of the best new thing since sliced bread. Others may wish more than ever that she'd learn not to wander off in too many fanciful directions. Of course, if you're a Mary Lou Parker fan you won't won't want to miss a chance to see her back on stage after a four-year absence, but this is a limited run, so go soon —and don't forget to turn off you cellphone.

Other Ruhl work Curtainup has reviewed:
The Clean House (New York, 2006)
The Clean House-DC, 2005
The Clean House-Philadelphia, 2004
Orlando/Ruhl, Sarah, adaptation of Virginia Woolf's novel-Los Angeles 2003
Passion Play: A Cycle in Three Parts-Chicago, 2007
Passion Play-DC, 2005 (DC)
Eurydice/Ruhl, Sarah-Second Stage, 2007

Written by Sara Ruhl
Directed by Anne Bogart
Cast: David Aaron Baker (Dwight), Kathleen Chalfant (Mrs. Gottlieb), Carla Harting (The Other Woman), Kelly Maurer (Hermia), Mary-Louise Parker (Jean), T. Ryder Smith (Gordon).
Sets & Costumes: G.W. Mercier
Lighting: Brian H. Scott
Sound: Darron L. West
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, West 42nd Street
From 2/08/08; opening 3/03/08; closing 3/23/08
Tue - Sat at 8pm; Sat & Sun at 2:30pm; Sun at 7:30pm.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at March1st press performance.
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