In Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, there’s a wonderfully ghoulish true story about a cell phone that started ringing inside a coffin.
It happened in Belgium some five years ago: The grieving family of the deceased had gathered at the funeral parlor to say a private, loving farewell around the sealed coffin when they suddenly heard a cell phone ringing inside. (What makes it worse—or funnier—is that the badly shaken family subsequently sued the undertakers for negligence).
Ms. Ruhl’s latest drama—a comic fable about love and cell phones (and too much else beside)—begins very promisingly, in the bizarre vein of the Belgium story, when a man dies sitting upright in a café and his cell phone starts ringing. “Excuse me,” says the anonymous stranger named Jean who’s sitting nearby, “are you going to get that?”
Jean (Mary-Louise Parker) eventually answers the dead Gordon’s cell phone, and her quirky odyssey begins with her meeting and comforting Carlotta, the mistress he never loved. “He said you stopped time just by walking into the room,” she lies sweetly to her.
She’s like a consoling, blundering angel insinuating herself innocently into the dead man’s life and mad family via the afterlife of his cell phone. She invents narratives for everyone, including herself. “Only connect (at all cost)” is the motto of the techno age, and of Ms. Ruhl’s morality tale.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone possesses such a fresh, intriguing premise that I was immediately prepared to retract every lousy thing I’ve ever said about the pretentiousness of her other plays. Forgive and forget the twee infantilization of her Eurydice (2003) with its Greek chorus of cutely anthropomorphic chanting stones; and the overwrought pseudo-poetry of The Clean House (2004), with its lofty, bogus pronouncements such as “The perfect joke is somewhere between an angel and a fart.”
To ask how the wayward Ms. Ruhl came to be acclaimed a bona fide genius by the good folk at The New York Times is to wonder why the earth isn’t flat. (It is, actually. But only on a Tuesday). There are more of the award-winning playwright’s typically wobbly aphorisms in Dead Man’s Cell Phone, and, at best, they’re eccentrically hit and miss: “Women are responsible for enlivening dull places like railway stations.” (Just okay.) “Hermia chose a Catholic mass for Gordon because she likes to kneel and get up.” (Could do better.) “I never wear a thong. It’s like having a tampon in your asshole.” (See teacher.)
Whatever flaccid witticisms would be in store for us during Dead Man’s Cell Phone, however, Ms. Ruhl’s ghostly theme of cell life after death promised a timely, original play. (Coincidentally, I recently attended a reception in honor of the assassinated Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Dmitriy Muratov, editor in chief of Novaya Gazeta, was paying moving tribute to Politkovskaya when he suddenly produced her cell phone from a pocket and took our breath away: It was no longer a cell but an eerie, intimate sign that she’d once lived, the modern relic of a saint. With its hundreds of numbers from all over the world, it was a tragic symbol of a network of global support, and of Politkovskaya’s immense courage. Was I alone in thinking, “What if her cell phone rings right now?”)
MS. RUHL DIDN’T intend to write a tragedy, but rather a “significant” fable. She trivializes her own potential. Her ideas about cell phones—“the music of the spheres”—are unsurprising (“Nothing is really silent anymore”). We’ve become too reliant on cell phones, apparently. And they ring all the time, in all kinds of places. “Raise your hand if you’ve answered your cell phone while you were quietly urinating. Yes I thought so,” the dead man’s mother, a barracuda in fur and pearls played by the game Kathleen Chalfant, asks the audience disapprovingly. (Two or three audience members raised their hands sheepishly—all guys—as if taking part in a reality TV show).
At the same time, Ms. Ruhl’s familiar thoughts on the tyranny of cell phones are bloated with other grandiose thoughts (the Holocaust and memory; the afterlife and redemption). The play is dressed up with name-dropping literary allusions, (John Donne on the “hidden”; quotations from Dickens on the mystery of lost souls among the teeming masses). And then there’s the plain silly: The dead man turns out to have trafficked illegally in body parts (“organs for the living”). Message: We all connect in different ways, right?
In such studiously juvenile ways, the second act randomly, even embarrassingly, lurches off the rails. There are moments—like the sex fantasy of Gordon’s embittered, nutty wife, Hermia. But this cell phone fable is written in the mannered style of all Ms. Ruhl’s previous work: It strives for a fairy tale wonder only to descend into an overbearing childlike whimsy.
The usually beguiling Mary-Louise Parker plays the innocent, angelic naif Jean as if she’s mentally challenged. (Similarly, David Aaron Baker as the near-simpleton Dwight, who is Jean’s love interest and the damaged younger brother of the dead Gordon—he of the organs). It’s all meant to be adorable; it’s knowingly winsome instead. Ms. Parker plays a drippy mouse hiding behind her glasses, in the coy way famous actresses in unglamorous roles perform a star “turn.” Worse, I’m afraid: She’s been encouraged to deliver her lines in a flat, suburban drone, which only dulls the already faux atmosphere of magical enchantment while patronizing the apparently ordinary woman she’s playing.
What else can I complain about in my disappointment? It’s not enough for the playwright to conclude that without cell phones, true love is possible. The playing of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s rousing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is a sophomoric substitute for a sense of humor, particularly when accompanied by the explanatory line “That’s right. Because you’ll always have a machine in your pants that might ring.”
Also, stagehands dressed like chic bistro waiters at Balthazar sometimes change the set in meticulous slow motion. The director is Anne Bogart.