Whimsy gives Ruhl’s Cell Phone good reception

By Ethan Stanislawski

[img id=”80445″ align=”alignleft”] Once wholly separate, the theater cultures of Chicago and New York have become increasingly intertwined of late. August: Osage County, a Steppenwolf transfer to Broadway, is well on its way to sweeping the Tonys. Broadway in Chicago is finally starting to show signs of success. And Sarah Ruhl, a Chicago native, had her newest play Dead Man’s Cell Phone premiere in New York before Chicago. This is a large development for a playwright who hadn’t even been produced in New York until 2006.

Far from the second-hand productions that New York–Chicago transfers often are, the Steppenwolf’s take on Dead Man’s Cell Phone succeeds at just about every level, from its uniformly excellent cast to its impeccable design. Even the original music of Andre Pluess is inspired. It’s hard to imagine a more professional theatrical experience.

Those already familiar with Sarah Ruhl’s magical realist style will not be disappointed by Dead Man’s Cell Phone, a play titled after the phone Jean (Polly Noonan) takes from the corpse of Gordon (Marc Grapey) at a nondescript café. Perhaps Ruhl’s greatest skill is using monologue to make the mundane seem divine. The most powerful moment of The Clean House, for which Ruhl was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, was Virginia’s monologue about dust. In Eurydice, it was the weeping stones of Hades’ underworld. In Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Ruhl gives the cell phone, arguably the most banal of modern technologies, a vital metaphysical significance. You’re not likely to look at your cell phone the same way after this play—though God help the cast if an audience member’s cell phone goes off during a performance.

As Jean slowly begins to define her life through the interactions that result from taking Gordon’s phone, we get lost in Ruhl’s humor and sense of whimsy more than in the nuances of the plot. Even as the play begins to take a darker turn in the second act—spearheaded by Mr. Grapey’s ironically lively Gordon—the focus is always on Ruhl’s distinct framing of the atmosphere. As Ruhl’s former teacher at Brown, the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Paula Vogel noted, we’ll soon be using Ruhl’s name as an adjective to describe her particular style.

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Ruhl decribed her work as “pre-Freudian,” focusing on a sense of magic that theater is capable of expressing but has long forgotten. While Gordon’s saga centers around his hardly pre-Freudian relationship with his mother, the Gloria Swanson–esque Molly Regan, his scene in heaven with Jean during the second act is the emotional and philosophical climax of the play, and also when Noonan is at her finest. The only major flaw of the play is Ruhl’s decision to end on a more farcical note, turning the play’s comedic side from a relief to a distraction.

You’re not likely to see Sarah Ruhl’s plays converted into movies. They’re uniquely suited for the stage, where heaven and hell and everything in between occupy the same space. Scott Bradley’s masterful set transforms from a café into a cathedral, a dining room, a stationary store, a Johannesburg airport, and the afterlife—all over the course of two hours. The only signs of scene changes are James F. Inghalls’s complementary lighting design.

Ruhl’s style has always run the risk of becoming too cutesy for its own good, but so far in her young career, she’s avoided that problem. Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a delicate work, but also a complex, meaty one. Perhaps more than any other contemporary playwright, Ruhl offers both an introduction to the power of live theater and a refresher course to those already well versed. Whatever boat you’re in, you won’t be disappointed.