Ringing Endorsement

'Dead Man's Cell Phone' powerfully kicks off Tucson's 2011-2012 theater season

Tucson's new theater season is underway, and if Dead Man's Cell Phone is an indication of what the season holds, we are going to be some pretty happy theater-goers. This collaboration between Chicken Lipps Productions and Studio Connections is a winner.

Sarah Ruhl's script is inventive, playful, thoughtful and wickedly funny. The direction, by Laura Lippman, interprets well the sensibility of the script, with acute attention to all the elements of a theatrical production—set, lights, costumes and sound. It's a treat to see a group of Tucson-based actors embrace their über-quirky characters without hesitation and entwine them so courageously into an effective ensemble.

Ruhl, at age 32 a MacArthur Fellow in 2006, has been produced on respected stages across the country. In 2010, her play In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play. Ruhl has established her popularity as a skilled playwright who's unafraid to bend reality and blend styles in a fresh and compelling voice.

Dead Man's Cell Phone is Ruhl's ringing endorsement of a thoughtful approach to the fantastic, in which she creates a world which is freed from the tyranny of the merely rational. This makes sense completely as it washes over us, in a refreshing—maybe even redemptive—baptism.

The setup intrigues from the get-go; it's quite simple, but with a complicating twist. In a café, Jean (Carrie Hill) sits at a table; at another table, with his back to us, is another diner, a man in a suit sitting up straight in his chair. His cell phone rings, but he doesn't answer. In a moment, it rings again, but there is still no effort from the man to answer it. The intrusive ringing annoys Jean, and when the ringing continues, she answers the phone. After a direct reproach to the man's thoughtlessness, Jean realizes that he is dead. In the flash of a moment, she connects profoundly with the man, Gordon, appropriating his phone, speaking with those who call him and inventing stories about his death, which usually include a benevolent lie meant to make them feel better about their relationship with him.

In the following days, she attends the man's funeral, meets with his mistress and is invited to dine with his family, learning just who Gordon (Gabriel Nagy) was. She is also drawn into intrigue involving his unusual occupation.

These are the bones of Ruhl's wild but credible creation, and the work of fleshing out her fantasy is where the fun and eloquence comes in. But the play's eloquence lies not so much in language as in the immediacy of our discovery of the consequences of Jean's assumed role—at the same time that she discovers them.

The piece resonates with things to think about, although it doesn't feel at all preachy. Perhaps the most obvious theme is how we connect—or don't—with others in this age of digital agility. We walk around talking or texting, not paying attention to the flesh and bones and souls of real people with whom we momentarily share the same small space. At the same time, we are witnesses to the drama of other people's lives as they speak unrestrained—angrily, intimately—into that "machine" kept "in our pants," as Ruhl describes cell phones. And Jean marvels, "When everyone has their cell phone on, no one is there. It's like we all are disappearing the more we're there."

We also get to muse a bit about how we become who we are. We never have any clue about Jean's history. Consequently, we never really know if she is acting plausibly based on her personality and history. The Jean we see is born the moment she answers Gordon's phone, and she grows as she becomes involved with the people he knew. Hers is a life based on technology's gifts—and its limitations. Still, she finds love with Gordon's brother Dwight (Robert Anthony Peters), love which seems to be the real thing and would never have happened had she not answered a stranger's phone.

Ruhl loves to play with time and appreciates economy of language; she employs a sparse but evocative—even at times poetic—approach with her dialogue, which makes what we see and hear simultaneously surreal and credible.

The supporting characters of Ruhl's piece are carved from some very strange stone, and except for a few forgivable missteps, the actors animate that stone convincingly.

The success of Ruhl's piece pivots on an endearing, sincere, open-hearted and guileless Jean, and Hill delivers beautifully. Gordon's mother (a wonderfully low-key and bizarre Martie van der Voort) observes that Jean is "comforting, like a small casserole." She is— and she's adventurous as well, as she negotiates her new and surprising world. Hill couldn't be much better.

Kate Natal's set is simple and unobtrusive, underlining the highly intrusive nature of the cell phone's demand for attention. Christopher Johnson's sound critically punctuates the tone and rhythm of the piece, and T. Greg Squires continues to excel in lighting design. Shana Nunez's costumes are fine, except for the choice to forgo a wig for van der Voort. Her youthful-looking coif didn't make sense and was distracting.

Dead Man's Cell Phone is exactly why we go to the theater: to have our fancies tickled and our complacently held ideas turned on their heads; to discover and to laugh—and to be treated like we, as an audience, are savvy enough to be challenged while being delighted.

So go. But, please, turn off your cell phones as you settle into your seats.