nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
February 10, 2009
More poetic than narrative, more abstract than linear, and traveling from the invention of Alexander Graham Bell's "harmonic telegraph" to the age of the cell phone with a stopover inside the unraveled mind of a madwoman, Telephone is a triptych of short meditations on the nature of communication, human connection, and even at times what it means to be human. The three segments—an intense discussion between Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson, possibly in the afterlife, in formal 19th-century speech; a wildly inventive monologue by a schizophrenic from inside the confines of both her asylum and her own lunacy; and a series of overheard fragments of 21st century cell-phone conversations—are linked only by thematic elements, in ways that are hard to describe in words but that resonate on some subconscious level as you watch. Although at times playwright Ariana Reines's flights of language (especially in Part 2) threaten to derail any sort of forward momentum through the piece—and I find myself still unable to articulate exactly how the pieces fit together—the production is so elegantly and beautifully conceived on every level, from design elements to acting and especially to Ken Rus Schmoll's direction, that the experience is constantly surprising, rich, and ultimately deeply moving.
Part 1 takes place on a set that looks like a Whistler painting dropped into the middle of the Cherry Lane—a neutral-toned wall with a door on its stage left side; a side table and two chairs; an antique telephone; a painting of an owl on the wall. Watson and Bell, dressed in tailcoats, interact almost entirely on the horizontal plane, with one of them only occasionally disappearing through the door and returning around the wall. There's a presentational, almost vaudevillian aspect to this section, in the formality of the language,the stylization of the acting, the way Watson and Bell speak directly to the audience almost as much as each other—even Tyler Micoleau's lighting creates a set of overlapping shadows for each that I think are meant to suggest the effect of footlights. At first, the piece almost seems like drawing room farce: Gibson Frazier's clipped and precise (and often drolly funny) Bell trying to enforce greater scientific rigor on Matthew Dellapina's slightly more emotionally overwrought Watson. But as they continue, they begin to delve into the philosophical and epistemological nature of the "harmonic telegraph," of what "friendship" means when the friends speak to each other through the ether, of how spiritual communication with nature is or might be affected by the growth of new technology. The formal diction never cracks; the stylization never slips; but underneath the surface, grave existential fears start to sneak in. The act ends abruptly, into a blackout and a soundscape, during which Marsha Ginsberg's set begins to transform itself: the wall flies a few feet into the air.
Part 2 is a non-stop rush of language, a long monologue of not-quite-nonsense by the schizophrenic Ms. St. from inside her asylum, which in her grandiose delusions she owns and deigns to share. Her fancies trip from the speaking tubes in the walls to world domination to ruling the entire universe, with the occasional, and terrible, lucid moment of actually being aware of her confinement and its permanence and her utter isolation, before descending back into "word salad" and ravings. Darting from one place to the next with only the logic of the lunatic to connect the two, looping constantly back upon itself to revisit ideas and themes, the monologue is almost impossible to follow and, I can only imagine, even more impossible to act. Birgit Huppuch delivers it almost like music—working with rhythm and tone and the pattern of speech as much as meaning, yet remaining emotionally connected to the content. It's remarkable work by both Huppuch and director Schmoll. There are a couple of false endings built into the writing in this section and I felt perhaps the monologue might productively have ended at any of them, but the level of craft here carries it through.
Part 3 is the starkest yet the most emotionally rewarding. The physical space continues to transform, stripping down to bare essentials but using what is left in ways that defy geometry and seemingly even gravity. The act takes place in almost unrelieved darkness, with the lights occasionally brightening as far as a murky gray in one corner before subsiding—and one section is in almost painful brightness. After an hour of 19th-century formality and operatic run-on sentences, casual 21st century idiom feels almost uncomfortably intimate. And as the writing strips down to snippets of telephone conversations between lovers, or parents and children, or people with some deep connection not entirely expressed in the bits we're overhearing, so do the actors strip down to the quietest, simplest register, arrayed in different geometries on the stage (when we can see them at all) and talking in the darkness. They can reach anyone, anytime, through any amount of space—and yet the gaps, the things unsaid, the difficulty of communication remains.