Oct 192009

Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Carmel O’Reilly. Produced by the the Lyric Stage Company at the YWCA Building on the corner of Clarendon Street and Stuart Street, Boston, MA, through November 14.

Reviewed by Helen Epstein

Jessica D. Turner and Liz Hayes in Dead Man's Cell Phone.  Photo Credit: The Lyric Stage Company of Boston

Jessica D. Turner and Liz Hayes in Dead Man's Cell Phone. Photo Credit: The Lyric Stage Company of Boston

Improbable though it seems these days with multiple requests to turn off electronics before performances, a cell phone went off in the row behind me at a particularly still moment towards the end of Act One and the woman behind me — perhaps imagining that she was in a closed telephone booth of the kind alluded to by a character onstage — took a while explaining to her caller that she was in a theater, and that the play was in progress.

Members of the audiences were infuriated and intermission unleashed animated discussion of a recent Dawn Upshaw concert during which a woman pulled out her cellphone during an encore and instructed her chauffeur to pick her up out front.

Using a cell phone during a performance is always a faux pas, but doing it at the Boston premiere of “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” was a truly mindless act that only provided more evidence — as if any were needed — of the timeliness of dramatist Sarah Ruhl’s intelligent and quirky comedy.

According to one of the useful historical background sheets often provided by the Lyric Stage Company, there were over four billion mobile phones in operation across the globe in 2008, 275 million of them in the United States. Ruhl’s genius is to take this now ubiquitous instrument and transform it into a multi-layered symbol as well as catalyst for dramatic action.

Ruhl is the 35-year-old, highly prolific playwright whose earlier work includes “The Clean House” and “Eurydice” and who has won both a MacArthur Fellowship and Pulitzer Prize. Her forthcoming “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)” is set to open on Broadway next week. Her work blends straight drama, comedy and a kind of magical realism in a surrealist style that some critics find persuasive and whimsical; others annoying.

I’m a fan, and the Lyric’s Stage’s sparkling and literate production of “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” perfectly conveys this edgy and unpredictable style using a single glass and steel set. Director Carmel O’Reilly’s excellent design team have collaborated to evoke a variety of venues — cafe, church, luxury apartment, stationary store, airport — heralded by dramatic lighting and sound, and enhanced by striking costumes.

O’Reilly has also chosen a wonderful cast for a rare play that — as I noted with pleasure — features four meaty roles for women and two for men. In this respect alone, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is an extraordinary play. As one of the actors remarked at the “Talkback,” she realized one day that she was in a rehearsal with a roomful of women, that she was doing a fight scene with another woman and that she had never been in that situation before.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” starts right off the bat with a dead man, sitting bolt upright in a cafe, facing a nondescript self-effacing, young woman entirely dressed in gray. Her name is Jean. She is a timid soul (after a few non-verbal reactions to the repeated ringing, she creeps up to her fellow diner to query: “Are you ill? Are you deaf” before dialing 911) who evokes the shy female protagonists of Anita Brookner’s novels. Gordon — as the dead man turns out to be named — may have died but his cell phone hasn’t, and, after it rings several times, Jean answers it and is drawn into a stranger’s professional and personal dramas.

I won’t give away the fantastical plot turns or the nutsy yet poignant characters that Ruhl has created and that the cast brings to convincing life. This is a production that entertains but also intrigues, provokes, and engages your mind long after you leave the theater. It addresses classic themes of family drama but brings in new ones such as evolving roles for women, the strange new world of globalization, and the process of our getting adjusted to and becoming addicted to new technologies.

The cast is excellent, especially the four women who seem to revel in their unconventional roles. Liz Hayes as Jean pulls off the trick of making a mousy, recessive heroine take center stage. Beth Gotha, as Mrs.Gottlieb, takes the role of Jewish Mother out of the realm of caricature and into elegance. Bryn Jamison and Jessica D. Turner, as the dead man’s wife and mistress respectively, turn in strong performances. The rapport between the four of them is striking. We feel they are having a wonderful time performing and it is a pleasure to watch their relationships unfold. And it doesn’t hurt that they get to speak lines never before heard in a theater. All in all, a production that makes me want to come back to the Lyric Stage and makes me very curious about the work of Sarah Ruhl.

Helen Epstein is the author of “Joe Papp: An American Life,” “Children of the Holocaust” and a new book of essays on memoir in French titled “Ecrire La Vie.”


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