Dead Man's Cell Phone
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 1, 2008
A woman—middle-aged, distinguished, monied—enters a church to speak at the funeral of her elder son. She says,
I'm not sure what to say. There is, thank God, a vaulted ceiling here. I am relieved to find that there is stained glass and the sensation of height. Even though I am not a religious woman I am glad there are still churches....Could some one please turn their fucking cell phone off. There are only one or two sacred places left in the world today. Where there is no ringing. The theater, the church, and the toilet. But some people actually answer their phones in the shitter these days....
If you believe that a middle-aged, distinguished, monied woman talks like this at her elder son's funeral, than perhaps Sarah Ruhl's new play Dead Man's Cell Phone is for you. I do not. And this play is unquestionably not for me.
I had actually figured that out even before I heard Kathleen Chalfant, as Mrs. Gottlieb, the grieving matriarch, deliver the foregoing with as much elegance and style as she could muster. I figured it out in Scene One, in which only two characters are present, Gordon, a dead man seated at a table at a cafe, and Jean, a young woman seated nearby. Gordon's cell phone rings....and rings...and rings...and Jean, annoyed, finally comes over to investigate why this man is letting his phone ring and ring and ring. Pretty quickly she determines that he's dead. And so she does what anybody would do...she finds the manager; calls the police; tries to figure out who his relatives are.
Oh no...she doesn't do any of those things. No, Jean just answers Gordon's phone. Several times. And then inserts herself into this stranger's life, deceiving his loved ones into believing that she knew and cared for Gordon when in fact she never spoke a word to him in his life.
Ruhl never supplies back story for Jean that might explain why she'd do something so preposterous and monstrous. Indeed, Ruhl doesn't let on that Jean's behavior is bad at all. I wondered, throughout Dead Man's Cell Phone, when we'd arrive at the subject of the sanctity of life. We never do. This playwright, as far as I can tell, thinks life and death are matters for frivolity, for trivializing, for jokey banter. I cannot think that: I hope that should I die alone in a coffee shop that whoever found me would respect me and my family and friends sufficiently to NOT answer my cell phone.
But this is Ruhl's play, and Jean does answer the phone, and soon she finds herself among strangers like Mrs. Gottlieb, a person who muses on architecture when she ought to be talking about her son. Among these people, Jean gets herself into the thick of an adventure that would not be out of place in a Hitchcock film. She also finds love, or so we are to believe; indeed, the "moral" of Dead Man's Cell Phone is apparently something like, love is the answer.
The play frequently seems to veer into the fantastical, but even under Anne Bogart's stylized direction it always feels anchored in, or near, reality; the absurdities in the piece merely feel absurd, rather than fanciful and beautiful or satirical and pointed. Bogart's staging involves three men dressed as upscale waiters moving tables and chairs around in between the many scenes—so much so, in fact, that the play seems to be as much about its scenery as it is about whatever Ruhl intends it to be about.
Chalfant and her colleagues on stage offer an impressive show. Mary-Louise Parker does one of her trademark mannered-and-quirky leading lady turns. T. Ryder Smith has fun as the dead man, and David Aaron Baker is surprisingly sympathetic as Gordon's brother. Carla Harting and Kelly Maurer complete the cast as, respectively, the dead man's girlfriend and wife.
I value the contributions of these live actors greatly. Ruhl does not appear to value the lives of the characters she's created for them to portray, however. And that was a big problem for me.