Despite the morbidity of its premise, which is tidily summed up in its title, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, by Sarah Ruhl (showing at Trinity Rep through March 28), is essentially comic. At the beginning of the play, a woman, Jean, is writing notes at a small café table, when she is disturbed by the incessant ringing of a nearby cell phone. Exasperated, she confronts the negligent owner of the phone, but he is strangely unresponsive. She answers his phone and conducts a conversation with someone who clearly assumes she is the man’s mistress. She prods the man, whose name she now knows is Gordon, and discovers the reason for his inaction: he is dead. The phone rings again. She answers it.
This impulsive impropriety changes everything in her life, deepening, stretching, and, ultimately, enriching her. She keeps the phone and continues to answer it on Gordon’s behalf, eventually fleshing out a saintly version of the dead man that reassures the grieving and consoles the lovelorn. Because of the phone, she meets Gordon’s family and falls in love with Gordon’s recessive brother, Dwight. But she also meets Gordon himself, and confronts her irrational love for him. The show, putatively plaintive, is actually resolutely playful: it literally flirts with death. This mixing of moods—the comic with the tragic, the cynical with the ingenuous, the mundane with the sublime—is the play’s alchemical act; but one senses that Ruhl is not as interested in gold as she is in weirdly-shaped gold things. She is as much a curator as a chemist.It is her curiosity and obsession that give the play its distinctive energy. Dead Man’s Cell Phone is wildly far-ranging, exuberantly excursive. Jean travels to South Africa to meet with a sinister organ-trader (a former colleague of Gordon’s) and to a strangely banal heaven after a bizarre airport brawl. The show is about cellular technology, but the title, as obvious as Shakespeare naming Hamlet “Yorick’s Skull” instead, is a kind of red herring. The dead man’s cell phone is both synecdochal – it stands in for Gordon and for the world of which Gordon was a part and from which Jean feels fundamentally estranged – and talismanic: it possesses magical capabilities. The phone gives Jean the opportunity to conjure a man, to speak him into existence in the idealized image of the people who loved him. Like Prospero’s staff in The Tempest, the cell phone bestows a power too great to endure; and Jean, like Prospero, frees herself from the imperatives of that power by destroying their agent. One wonders if Jean – again, like Prospero – is meant as an authorial stand-in: her power to create mimics and amplifies Ruhl’s.
But if the script is full of adventure and allusion, it is also marked by certain trivializing preoccupations: like a traveler unable to shake her home country’s customs, Ruhl visits places and ideas with one foot in her own living room. She is as avid and sincere, and as transient, as a tourist. In retrospect, the show feels like an armchair anecdote, an embellished recounting of a pleasant visit to a faraway place. Ruhl is not inattentive to cruelty and venality there, but she remarks on it with a detachment that belies its urgency. The play’s tone – its moon-bounce mood – precludes any moral seriousness. Mrs. Gottlieb, eulogizing her son at his funeral service, is interrupted by a ringing cell phone and asks, testily, “Could someone please turn their fucking cell phone off. There are only one or two sacred places left in the world today. Where there is no ringing. The theater, the church, and the toilet.” Surely, Ruhl has seen the ample evidence in the news that the theater and the church are no longer considered sacred, unassailable places; that evidence sounds a hell of a lot louder, and has more terrible consequences, than the ringing of a cell phone. Yet the play never reproaches Mrs. Gottlieb for her parochialism – for her meanness, yes, but not for her privileged isolation. Later, Gordon, during his tour-de-force monologue that opens the second act of the show, opines, “Airports and subway stations are very similar to hell. People are vulnerable – disembodied – they’re looking around for their souls while they’re getting their shoes shined. That’s when you bomb them. In transit.” This glancing reference to the world of violence and consequence is disorienting. Not only is it utterly sophistic – Is Gordon suggesting that people in airports are so busy looking for their souls they forget to watch out for terrorists? Or that terrorists only bomb people without souls? – but it is also inane. The show has nothing to say about brutality. Even Gordon’s vocation is treated as a quirk of character: he sells organs, but he is never held to account for it. “Is he punished?” Mrs. Gottlieb asks Jean after she returns from Gordon’s afterlife. “Not really,” Jean replies.
Of course, Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a fantasy; but what is its relationship with the real world beyond the stage? Ruhl is concerned with talk, but not with the possibility that the government might overhear your talk, or that the international community might not hear your talk. Talk in Dead Man’s Cell Phone is intimate and private, not agitated and public. It is not a weapon, just a nuisance; it doesn’t shake us from our foundational beliefs, but only interrupts our reverie, our precious quiet. Talk is an assault not on our politics but only on our ears. Indeed, there are no politics in Dead Man’s Cell Phone, though there are contesting ethics. Mostly what there are in the play are dozens of different ideas, zipping brightly and briefly across the stage. The show is constantly disappearing in the bright glare of the ever-new moment onstage. Janice Duclos is a dazzled and naïve Jean; her innocence is matched by Richard Donnelly’s oily charisma as the sophisticated but solipsistic Gordon. Donnelly also plays Dwight, the meek paper-store owner who falls in love with Jean. As Gordon’s wounded wife, Hermia (more Shakespeare!) Phyllis Kay is mesmerizing; in a long, drunken scene with Jean, Kay is both despairing and defiant. And Rachael Warren plays Gordon’s unnamed colleague and lover with a fantastic sneer, a gelatinous accent – now Scottish, now Ukrainian – and an ungraspable physicality.
In a way, she is the perfect emblem of the show: protean and evasive; funny and just a little sinister; familiar, at times, but also completely foreign. Welcome to the world according to Sarah Ruhl.