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Ariana Reines' play about the effects of Alexander Graham Bell's famous invention is a quirky dramatic delight. logo
Matthew Dellapina and Gibson Frazier in Telephone
(© Pavel Antonov)
Ariana Reines' tripartite play Telephone -- inspired by Avital Ronell's 1991 study The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech -- perfectly fulfills the Foundry Theatre's mandate to create "works that merge the exploration of social and political questions with unusual theatrical forms." Such a grandiose goal might sound like an invitation to over-intellectualized bloviation, but in the hands of this gifted playwright, a fleet director such as Ken Rus Schmoll, and a superlative cast, Telephone comes through clearly as a quirky dramatic delight.

The production opens with an abandoned stage (a table, two chairs, a wall with door) and a long symphony of near-silence, auguring a fun-free exercise in minimalism. But soon Alexander Graham Bell (Gibson Frazier) materializes to issue his famous summons -- "Watson, come here" -- to his assistant (Matthew Dellapina) in the adjoining room. Timelines and questions of space quickly fuzz. Perhaps the pair is communicating telephonically for the first time, on that fateful day of March 10, 1876; or perhaps they've embarked on a promotional tour (as indeed they did, Watson amazing audiences with piped-in snippets of popular songs). Perhaps they're in Canada; perhaps they're dead.

Reines plays fast and loose with the wheres and whens, building up a Beckett-like ambiguity while busily limning character. Bell emerges as an emotionally constricted tinkerer (at one point, when asked how he feels, he resorts to binary code and a snippet of the disco hit "What Is Love?"). Watson is the dreamer/fantasist/philosopher, claiming a prior acquaintance with the language of morning-glories and wondering "whether machines ever feel lonely for the people they were fashioned to assist." The two work up to a tiff, of sorts, when Watson makes the all-important distinction between being heard and being understood.

This is the crux of the dilemma obsessing the character who occupies the play's middle section. Based on Jung's patient "Miss St.," a schizophrenic seamstress who believed she'd been implanted with a telephone, Babette (Birgit Huppuch) is in the throes of a full-fledged manic episode. Perhaps she's arguing her case during a competency hearing or maybe her nonstop torrent of megalomaniacal logorrhea is all going on in her mind. Either way, she's directly imploring the audience to accede to her status as, among other exalted stations, "the only irreplaceable" and "triple owner of the world," entitled to "one thousand millions" and all due honors and accolades.

"Tour de force" doesn't begin to describe the challenge posed by this intense, lengthy, wide-ranging monologue; it's a half-hour, high-speed rant of extraordinary complexity, bejeweled with brilliant illogic, and Huppuch carries it off as if mortally invested in the outcome. After this, the show's final segment -- fragments of contemporary phone conversations, conducted mostly in the dark -- comes almost as aural/emotional relief.

Near the play's beginning, Bell poses the question of what his invention might be good for -- crises, he imagines, and the cause of world peace. "People will understand one another," he prognosticates. The sad truth is that Reines' provocative musings suggest that we've only upped the margin for miscommunication.


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