Over the past decade or so, theatergoers have gotten used to the pre-performance kindly-turn-off-your-cellphones announcement. They’ve even become accustomed to, if not particularly appreciative of, the various attempts to make the obligatory request somehow amusing. So it’s undoubtedly a logical development that MacArthur Fellowship recipient Sarah Ruhl has turned an entire play, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, now at Playwrights Horizons, into a warning about the unexpected consequences of cellphone deployment.
While it starts with a genuinely intriguing premise, Ruhl eventually piles on so much whimsy that it’s a strong possibility patrons exiting the two-act piece will quickly reactivate their phones for the express purpose of discouraging friends from making the same attendance mistake.
The play’s legitimately cute hook has café patron Jean (Mary Louise Parker) being disturbed when a phone belonging to a man at a nearby table begins to ring, stops, rings again, stops, then rings again. As it happens, Gordon (T. Ryder Smith) isn’t answering the calls because — although he’s still sitting upright — he has figuratively turned up his toes. Not immediately realizing as much, Jean answers the phone and in a trice becomes involved in the deceased fellow’s life, eventually meeting his hoity-toity mother Mrs. Gottlieb (Kathleen Chalfant), his widow Hermia (Kelly Maurer), an exotic woman of his acquaintance (Carla Harting), and his younger brother Dwight (David Aaron Baker).
Learning from family and friends that they’re unsure of how Gordon regarded them, the curiously affectless Jean lies to them, relaying made-up messages citing Gordon’s love and affection. She does even more for Dwight: she falls in love with him. Eventually, she takes an action that leads her to join Gordon in the afterlife, where he gives her an explanation about life that involves the need to let the people you love know you love them. At this point, it becomes apparent that Ruhl has composed the work as an oblique companion piece to her acclaimed Eurydice, although Jean, unlike the mythical Greek heroine, gets to come back from her eternal reward.
The play — Ruhl’s newest addition to a growing library of unfortunately overrated works — has Jean and her associates speaking some lines that will cause inward (and maybe outward) audience groaning. For example, in the second-act opening speech that Gordon makes about the work he did connecting organ donors and organ receivers, he comments, “I make people feel good about their new organs — I call it ‘compassionate obfuscation.'” Later, the forever epigramizing fellow declares, “Life is essentially a very large Brillo pad.”
What’s worse about an unsatisfactory property like this one is the squandered work put into it by director Anne Bogart — who doesn’t minimize the fluff — and the dedicated cast. Because it’s impossible for Parker not to look good in anything she takes on, she emerges unscathed. Her flat-toned nasal line readings as the isolated and isolating Jean are consistently amusing. Kathleen Chalfant, tough and touching these Monday nights as Virginia Woolf in Vita & Virginia at the Zipper, comes off less well. She’s asked to spout a few obscenities, which someone incorrectly thought would be hilarious coming out of her mouth, but she does have the opportunity to sing nicely a few bars of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” The others are primarily notable for not letting on that they’re in something somewhat beneath them.
Ruhl illustrates her moral lesson by way of the Jean-Dwight romance, which is only half a day old when the two cement their bond. “I don’t need more than 12 hours to get to know you, Jean,” Dwight insists, and the audience is encouraged to believe him and take the advice home with them. But how much can a contemporary ticket buyer hope to benefit from a playwright who doesn’t know what an extremely shallow insight this is? The answer is not much.