February 29, 2012

“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” Transports Audiences to a Surreal World: Absurd but Realistic, Trivial and Profound, Comical and Serious

Have our cell phones transformed the nature and quality of our most important human relationships? Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone (2007) provides its audiences with an engaging, thought-provoking, consistently amusing, and frequently surprising experience exploring this, and other timely issues, at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus for one more weekend.

Intelligently and dynamically staged here with a poised six-member undergraduate ensemble under the sure-handed direction of Princeton University junior Daniel Rattner, Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a dark romantic comedy — yes, definitely about cell phones and the problems with contemporary communication, but also about the larger peculiarities of this modern world and about no less than our struggle for fulfillment through connection with other human beings, in this world and the next.

Ms. Ruhl, emerging as a major new playwright of the twenty-first century (Eurydice in 2003, The Clean House in 2004, and In the Next Room in 2009, a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006 and twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), dexterously shuttles back and forth in her plays between the surreal and the mundane. Dead Man’s Cell Phone, with its twelve scenes in two acts, provides a steady stream of surprises — in characters’ words and actions, in plot, and in ideas.

As clever in her quirky insights into the eccentricities of human nature as she is poetic and inventive in her uses of language, Ms. Ruhl makes the most of the clever premise indicated in her title. The lights rise on a café. A man and a woman sit at tables on opposite sides of the stage, and after a silent minute — anguished on her part, frozen on his — the first of many cell phones rings is heard. The rings cease briefly, only to start up again, until the annoyed woman, Jean (Sarah Paton), asks the man, Gordon (Michael Pinsky), to answer his phone. He doesn’t move. He can’t, of course, because he’s dead, which she eventually realizes, after she has answered the phone. She is immediately swept into his complicated personal and professional lives.

Throughout the play, Jean feels compelled to hold onto the dead man’s phone, and she continues to answer calls. She attends Gordon’s funeral, meets his imperious mother (Savannah Hankinson), his mysterious Other Woman (Bits Sola), his eccentric widow Hermia (Annika Bennett), and his shy, sweet brother Dwight (Eric Traub).

From her initial exasperation at the annoyance of Gordon’s unanswered phone to an acute compassion and curious desire to connect with the dead man and his world, Jean finds herself taking responsibility for passing along, and creating, the meaning of Gordon’s life, his mysterious career and his most important relationships. This ambitious and daring undertaking sends Jean deep into the worlds of romance, international intrigue and family dysfunction in a series of wild scenes—from café to church to mom’s dinner party to bar to stationery store to Johannesburg airport to some semblance of the after-life (or it might be another planet).

As she continues on her quest to connect and make meaning out of the mystery and loneliness of her life, of Gordon’s life and the lives of his loved ones, she finds herself making up increasingly creative tales. “I call Jean’s stories confabulations, I never call them lies…,” Ms. Ruhl writes in her notes for the director.

Ms. Paton, as the frenetic, beleaguered, ultimately triumphant protagonist, undergoes a wide range of emotions and experiences during the course of the two-hour evening. She creates a sympathetic character, though less than credible at times in age (late 30s — an almost 20-year stretch for this actress) and in a dependence on the distraught look, the sighs and furrowed brow at the expense of a wider variety of reactions. It would have been helpful, and in keeping with the fanciful nature of the play to see Jean at times relaxing the distressed demeanor and enjoying more fully the power and creative challenges of her romantic, moral adventure.

As Gordon, Mr. Pinsky plays a convincing dead man in the opening scene, makes an astonishing entrance at the end of act one, returns in act two to tell us about his last day, and, with effective self-assurance and lack of affectation, delivers, to Jean and the audience, essential words for contemplation.

Ms. Hankinson as the formidable, doting mother creates a compelling presence and almost steals the show in creating an unforgettable character — albeit, as written, more of a two-dimensional caricature. Her funeral speech for her son, interrupted by a ringing cell phone, of course, is a tour de force, followed up expertly with classic matriarchal encounters, peppered with searing one-liners directed at Jean, her younger son and her daughter-in-law.

Ms. Bennett’s Hermia, Gordon’s widow, is another larger-than-life yet thoroughly believable character — fascinating and compelling in her eccentricity, manifested, for just one example, in her final decision, and final appearance in full regalia, to join the Ice Follies.

Mr. Traub as Dwight, a striking contrast to the more flamboyant characters surrounding him and a suitable match for the protagonist, and Ms. Sola as the enigmatic Other Woman provide first-rate support and interest to the play’s romantic and adventure plots.

The pacing occasionally drags here, as Jean wends her way towards love and fulfillment. “There is a great deal of silence and empty space in this play,” Ms. Ruhl describes, “but the pauses should not be epic.” The glimpses of yearning, loneliness, isolation — what Ms. Ruhl describes as frozen Edward Hopper (the painter) moments — are important, but this production could pick up the pace at times, both between and within scenes.

Mark Watter’s simple, flexible set,—single café tables stage right and stage left, simple platforms upstage and basic furniture brought on as necessary, serves the play well. Sean Drohan’s richly colorful lighting, with the backdrop transforming from fuchsia in the first scene to an array of different hues, ending in bright pink for the finale, contributes significantly to the creation of this surreal world.

“You know what’s funny?” Jean confides to Dwight near the end of the first act. “I never had a cell phone. I didn’t want to always be there, you know. Like if your phone is on you’re supposed to be there. Sometimes I like to disappear. But it’s like — when everyone has their cell phone on, no one is there. It’s like we’re all disappearing the more we’re there.” It’s not just a coincidence that the most meaningful relationship in the play takes place between two characters who meet in person, without any electronic communication, and who find love in a stationery store, triumphing over the intrusions of cell phones into their lives.