Review of Dead Man’s Cell Phone

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.

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13 thoughts on “Review of Dead Man’s Cell Phone

  1. Jim Donato

    I viewed the protagonist, Jean, as an embodiment of an archetype. Namely, one who is compelled to tell people what they wanted to hear. I saw the play as a po-mo deconstruction of that very human trait (for better or for worse) to its worst possible circumstances. Jean, by feeling obligated to tell people what she thought they wanted to hear, got wrapped up in an organ-legging operation that resulted in her (apparent) death.

    Yes, act 2 was confusing, and I was right with you there. How we got from death, the afterlife, to life again (apparently months later) was certainly opaque. But plotting or characterization was not what this play was about, as if the declamatory delivery of all of the characters didn’t telegraph that. Ultimately, your suggestion to go along for the stylish ride is a good one, but I’d argue that the human truths that these characters represented provides food for thought beneath the surface of po-mo satire of the play’s surface. Or am I just projecting?

  2. Play Lover

    “Now in her mid-30s, Ruhl is perhaps the most celebrated American playwright of her generation . . .”
    Suzan Lori Parks?
    Paula Vogel?
    Tracy Letts?
    Douglas Carter Beane?
    David Lindsay-Abaire?
    Others?

  3. Steven Samuels

    Play Lover, please note that those you name are significantly older than Ruhl.

  4. Tiger Lilly

    Watch out for Christopher Shinn and Sheila Callaghan, too.

    What’s refreshing about Ruhl and other younger playwrights is their lack of respect for realism. Nor do they feel they have to depart from it so far as to make some kind of genre statement. Something rather wonderful is going on regarding the attempt to blend realistic characters with non-realistic theatrical elements (very UNLIKE the absurdists of decades ago)… I think we live in such a factious and disingenuous sort of culture these days that only non-linear thinking may set us free…

  5. Play Lover

    Thanks to Steven Samuels. Hard to know what constitutes a “generation.” David Lindsay-Abaire and Sarah Ruhl might have just missed each other in college. Tracy Letts could be her older brother. Paula Vogel was Sarah Ruhl’s teacher. Sheila Callaghan is Ms. Ruhl’s “classmate” at New Dramatists. “Generation X” sometimes defined from 1961-1981. So to what “generation” does Ms. Ruhl belong?

  6. Steven Samuels

    I surrender on the “generation” issue; we used to say it was twenty years, but cultural cycles seem far more compressed than that. Assuming Ruhl is, indeed, in her mid-30s, I think John’s assertion at least defensible.

  7. zomBgrl

    “Generation” is a spongy term, true dat. But wasn’t the “operative” in Crutchfield’s assertion the thing about Ruhl being celebrated? Genius Grant, etc.? Whether she’s 25 or 85, getting a MacArthur puts her in the “most celebrated of her generation” league. Crutchfield’s over-reacher is implying that she’s alone there.

  8. Ron Bashford

    Ruhl was born in ’74, so she’s 35/36. She is definitely Generation X, though on the somewhat younger end of it.

    Vogel was born in ’51, so she’s pushing 60; definitely Baby Boom.

    Letts is about 44 (born in ’65); older Gen X.

    Callaghan is just one year older than Ruhl.

    In terms of speed of rising to prominence, Ruhl have moved very fast, from finishing grad school to having written 10 plays, the most recent being performed on Broadway, in less than a decade.

    As a reference it may be interesting to note that Tony Kushner (b. 1956 — another Baby Boomer) had his first Broadway production at about the same age as Ruhl, in ’92.

    And then of course, there is Sarah Kane, who was internationally known at the tender age of 24, beginning with Blasted in 1995. She was dead four years later.

    Martin McDonagh is one year older than Kane would have been. He was born in 1970, another Gen X-er.

  9. Theatre Goer

    ” . . .What’s refreshing about Ruhl and other younger playwrights is their lack of respect for realism. Nor do they feel they have to depart from it so far as to make some kind of genre statement. Something rather wonderful is going on regarding the attempt to blend realistic characters with non-realistic theatrical elements (very UNLIKE the absurdists of decades ago). . .”

    Tiger Lily makes some interesting points about the playwright’s technique. Were the “absurdists” blending “realistic” characters with “non-realistic theatrical elements?” Pinter? Beckett? Ionesco? Kopit? Albee (of “The American Dream”)? Curious to know how Ruhl is UNLIKE the absurdists. She seems very much in that early absurdist tradition.

    Are Ruhl’s characters believable? Are they caricatures? Stereotypes of the dysfunctional family? Overbearing mother; calculating, egocentric, favored son; wimpish brother; bitter daughter-in-law. Curiously, the most “realistic” character, Jean, as least as portrayed in this production, is never explained. Who is she? What’s her family/romantic/professional background? Why does she have such a need to tell people what they want to hear?

    Mr. Donato’s comments are helpful: “But plotting or characterization was not what this play was about, as if the declamatory delivery of all of the characters didn’t telegraph that. Ultimately, your suggestion to go along for the stylish ride is a good one, but I’d argue that the human truths that these characters represented provides food for thought beneath the surface of po-mo satire of the play’s surface.”

    He refers to “declamatory delivery of all the characters.” Did others perceive that? Any disagree?

    Mr. Crutchfield’s review was full of enlightening detail and well-written. He’s tougher and probably more accurate in his assessment of the playwright’s skill than her “big city” critics have been. Will producers and directors be reviving Ruhl’s plays in, say, a decade?

    This theatre goer only disagreed with the critic’s evaluation of the actress playing the mother, who chewed the scenery (the minimalist scenery) a little too vigorously for my taste. She could have used a little of the admirable restraint and nuance of the actors portraying Jean, the brother and the sister-in-law.

  10. Avid Dramatist

    Thanks for a true and balanced review of a very uneven work. It’s the only one I know by Ms. Ruhl and would like to see more but…and I agree with Tiger Lilly (thanks for those comments)…where is the well made play? While it certainly gets off to a great start it completely falls apart in the middle and goes nowhere in end. I gotta have more.

  11. Tiger Lilly

    Hi Avid,

    Thanks for your thanks! Though I was actually trying to make the point that as audience members, we are too wedded to the idea of “well made play” as you put it. The well-made play depends on contrived logic just as much as more abstract or surrealistic works, only we don’t notice it because it is rational and safe. I rather enjoyed the illogical journey of DMCP. It went to places in the psyche it couldn’t have gone if it had made more “sense”.

  12. sharkbear.org

    I really liked the monologue at the top of act 2. While most of the play didn’t really click with me (a matter of taste I’m sure) that one moment almost made up for the whole event. Seriously, one of the best monologues I’ve ever heard and bravo to Willie Repoley for it.

    Other than that, there were a few stand out performances (Vivian Smith and Katie Langwell come to mind), but the play just had a tone and aesthetic I didn’t gel with or find engaging. Again, just personal taste speaking. I thought the scene changes were handled very well, and the split gel in the preshow/intermission gobo created a nice look.

    On an unrelated note, I think Ron Bashford is our go-to man for experimental minimalist sets. While they may not all the way follow a play’s arc, they are sets that will make any play performed on them look 1,000 times cooler. Well done, sir.

  13. Ron Bashford

    Thanks sharkbear! Artistic credit for this one should also go to Willey Repoley (we collaborated on the set together) and Chris Kobyluk (cloud painting), — and to make the whole experience complete, Giny Speaks (costumes), Brian Moore (lights) and Jason Waggoner (sound and original music).

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