South Coast Repertory specializes in classics, but even more importantly, in new plays. Celebrating their 45th year, they have produced 107 world premieres, offered 235 playwriting commissions, had 86 new script readings, and produced 50 of their commissioned plays. This is a tremendous track record for a company that started in a storefront. It's hard for writers to get their work before an audience or get funds to support their work, especially in the LA area with the lure of big bucks from Hollywood. That's why SCR is a national treasure.
Their latest staging of a new play is Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl. It is getting a first class production on the Julianne Argyros Stage, SCR's primary venue for new works.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone concerns a young woman, Jean, played brilliantly by Margaret Welsh, who answers the cell phone of a man whom she has found dead in a restaurant. As she says, “If a phone rings you have to answer it.” Out of this rather implausible event (more on this later) she builds a life for herself, lying her way into the dead man's family and circle of business associates.
The writing is funny, and often totally off-the-wall. It is that off-the-wall quality, however, that gives me pause. If you are going to write a basically absurdist play, you must have a strong sense of reality (though not naturalism) at play. The situation Ruhl sets up at the beginning is presented in a way that is already over the top. Jean’s character swiftly says she is in love with the dead man. If Ms. Ruhl had waited and let the character slowly evolve into a relationship with the dead man, you might have had an interesting play about loneliness and the ever-present influence of phones in our lives, and a real but quirky love story.