It would be hard to overstate my happiness at seeing N.C. Stage, with the help of Immediate Theatre Project, continue to take risks on contemporary plays. If Sam Shepard’s True West (N.C. Stage’s last full production) still feels relevant 30 years after its premiere, it’s a dinosaur compared to Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone. The title says it all. Granted, Ruhl is not exactly an unknown quantity. The play dates from 2006, not long after Ruhl had been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and had received the MacArthur Foundation’s half-million dollar Genius Grant. Now in her mid-30s, Ruhl is perhaps the most celebrated American playwright of her generation, and Dead Man’s Cell Phone makes it clear why.
In the style that has become her trademark, Ruhl fuses the lyrical whimsy and unfettered imagination of a fairy tale with some high-grade postmodernist irony, and the result, in Dead Man’s Cell Phone as in her other works, is pretty delightful. The play is good entertainment, full of comic quirks and flights of fancy, and yet it also feels intelligent and profound. If that profundity turns out to be less real than imagined, well, you can’t expect to have your lobster bisque and eat it too.
Under the skillful direction of Ron Bashford, Dead Man’s Cell Phone is all that Ruhl could hope it would be, and perhaps a bit more. The acting is solid, the design elements well-integrated (especially Jason Waggoner’s superb soundscape), and the overarching “concept” reaches to the heart of this fanciful play and expresses it in a beautiful and coherent dramatic world.
The play tells the story of a rather nondescript young woman named “Jean,” who is more or less minding her own business in a café one rainy afternoon, when she notices that a well-dressed man at a table near her is rather stoically refusing to answer his cell phone. After a bit of annoyed hemming and hawing, Jean reaches over and answers it for him, only to discover that he is in fact (you guessed it) dead.
One thing leads to another, the way it often does in plays, and before she or the audience knows exactly what’s going on, Jean has begun taking messages for the dead guy, and eventually finds herself meeting his bereaved mother, his resentful wife, his estranged brother, and his mistress, to each of whom she feels compelled, apparently by dint of her own sweet nature, to lay it on good and thick concerning his “last words” for them.
As the lead, Lauren Fortuna is convincingly plain, slouchy, and unassuming. This will be surprising news indeed to N.C. Stage audiences who know Fortuna as the statuesque beauty of, say, It’s a Wonderful Life or Moonlight and Magnolias. She also succeeds in capturing Jean’s ability to think on her feet — even if they are two left feet. The unwitting object of her affections is the deceased “Gordon,” played by Willie Repoley with pomp, circumstance, and a creep-factor somewhere up around 8.5; and were it not for the unfortunate fact of his cheap suit, I would never suspect that he was not a young millionaire of dubious character and animé jawline.
Vivian Smith (as “Hermia,” Gordon’s rather frosty wife of 10 years), Katie Langwell (doing a double-turn as “The Other Woman” and “The Stranger”) and Catori Swann (as Gordon’s brother, “Dwight”) all play their parts with conviction and charm; but the hands-down star of the show is Callan White, who plays Gordon’s desperately conceited mother, “Mrs. Gottlieb.” White does consistently and without apparent effort what the others achieve only hit-or-miss: she finds a depth of authentic emotion beneath the thin, ironic carapace of her role.
Mrs. Gottlieb is ridiculous, of course — almost straight out of Oscar Wilde, but thanks to White’s nuanced interpretation, we love her and feel compassion for her anyway. That’s acting; or as I heard an older woman near me say when White left the stage after her first scene, “Wow. She’s a pro.” What the lady was responding to, I think, was White’s obvious respect for the audience: she respects us enough to know that her job is not to make us feel this or that emotion, much less to do the feeling for us, but simply to play the character: to want what the character wants, no more no less.
But even White’s skill and Bashford’s guiding vision are no match for the confusions of Act 2. The problems lie in the script. To his credit, Bashford has actively embraced those problems rather than attempting to correct them in his staging. In a 2008 New Yorker profile of the playwright, John Lahr wrote of Ruhl’s “non-linear form of realism — full of astonishments, surprises, and mysteries” as well as her “zigzags of logic.” I was more than willing to take the zags along with the zigs, and I left Act 1 feeling palpably curious about what was going to happen next. But truth be told, I was not dying to know; and that should have been a warning sign.
Ruhl gives us a surprising premise, a set of interesting (if unabashedly one-dimensional) characters, and much quirky and evocative dialogue; but nothing is really at stake here. Our protagonist does what she does, as far as I can tell, on a lark. While I admire Jean’s gumption and can even let myself be charmed by her Disney-style optimism, Act 1 ends and I’ve still not really been made to care what happens to her. What motivates her? What does she want? Who is she, finally?
As the playwright soweth in Act 1, so shall she reap in Act 2. Rarely have I seen a play go in so many different directions at once in the attempt to find its resolution. Bashford and his cast do their best to follow, but things get pretty strange. First we’re in Hell’s lecture hall, then the Johannesburg airport, then the dark side of the moon for all I know. In his commitment to the spirit of all this cinematic madness, Bashford creates some staging that is oddly cinematic as well, and there is even a bit of slow-motion stage combat.
The effect is, of course, comical; but comical in a way that makes the actors suddenly look really, really small. Tightly framed by a movie camera and projected on the big screen, such antics might be funny in the right way, but viewed so to speak in “long shot” and right in the middle of a wide and rather empty stage, the result is amateurish. To be sure, an arch amateurishness and winking ineptitude are virtually de rigeur in the age of YouTube, but here it pushes us over the line from comedy to plain goofiness. But what else can you do, when the plot you were handed was so tenuous to begin with?
Yet, on second thought, maybe it’s all for the best, since it means that the play’s conclusion (something about Loving Each Other For Ever And Ever) comes off as a joke. And I suppose a joke is preferable to cloying sentimentality just about any day of the week. If Ruhl wants to have it both ways, she’s obviously not alone. The play is a strange journey, but one that’s certainly worth embarking on: as long as you go without any preconceived notions of being moved, disturbed or provoked by what you see, you’ll enjoy the ride.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone, by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Ron Bashford in a co-production of Immediate Theatre Project and North Carolina Stage Company. Featuring: Lauren Fortuna, Willie Repoley, Callan White, Vivian Smith, Catori Swann, and Katie Langwell. Stage Manager: Jamie Nicholson. Lighting Design: Brian Moore. Sound Design: Jason Waggoner. Set Design: Ron Bashford and Willie Repoley. Property Design: Jessica Tandy Kammerud. Costume Design: Ginny Speaks. Performances Wednesdays through Sundays, through April 25, 7:30 pm (2 p.m. Sundays), at N.C. Stage, 15 Stage Lane, Downtown Asheville. Tickets: $16 – $26, depending on day. Reservations: (828) 239-0263.