Beth Gotha, Liz Hayes, Bryn Jameson, Jeff Mahoney, Neil McGarry, Jessica D. Turner
Sarah Ruhl, the reigning queen du jour of theatrical whimsy, produced yet another winner last year when Dead Man’s Cell Phone premiered at Playwrights Horizons starring Mary-Louise Parker. Now in a Boston production by Lyric Stage Company, the play represents a continuation in the development of Ruhl’s inventively zany theatrical landscape, wherein characters are bound by a sense of dramatic purpose rather than by the strictures of reality.
Sitting in a cafe one day, Jean finds herself staring down a dead man whose cell phone won’t stop ringing despite several flashes of the evil eye. When Jean realizes the man – whose name is Gordon – is dead, she covets his cell phone, relishing the sense of control she experiences in comforting Gordon’s friends and loved ones.
As the play proceeds, its strangeness only increases until Jean finds herself in Gordon’s personal version of Heaven, wondering what her version will look like. She finds herself comforting Gordon’s wife and mistress, vexing his mother, and falling in love with his brother, who was also overlooked in favor of his more charismatic brother.
In a commandingly passive performance, Liz Hayes inhabits the role of Jean with a sense of whimsical in-over-her-head eagerness that suits the character’s vulnerable, frightened persona. Beth Gotha, as Gordon’s mother, impresses as well, particularly effective in her first scene, espousing her respect for the silence of churches and theatres.
It turns out Gordon wasn’t such a nice guy after all, despite Jean’s idealization of him. In fact, in turns out he old organs (Neil McGarry, as Gordon, excels in his second act speech chronicling the joys of organ extraction). It turns out the answer to Jean’s problems is to find love in the moment rather than in theory. Dead Man’s Cell Phone, a strange and somewhat scattered play, is ultimately one of Ruhl’s most romantic.
There are a number of wonderful segments throughout, but perhaps the most affecting is a scene between Jean and Gordon’s brother Dwight. As Dwight gives Jean a tour of the stationery story he runs, she exclaims, “I want to remember everything. Even other people’s memories.” Though Dwight cautions that “remembering requires paper,” she conjectures that “maybe the air remembers. Sometimes.”
Ruhl’s writing is served well in the Lyric Stage’s production, directed with speed and wit by Carmel O’Reilly and featuring attractive scenic design by Cristina Todesco.
For Ruhl, there’s an intangibility about the universe that’s continually vexing. Even the resolutions of her plays seem infinitely expansive. As one story comes to a conclusion, it’s typically as a result of something profoundly unknowable. Sure, Jean is in love in the moment, but what does that mean? Will she and Dwight stay together forever? Will the air remember? Who knows. But Dead Man’s Cell Phone, with its scatterbrained charm, need not provide answers in order to satisfy.