Here is what I want. I want to follow Mary-Louise Parker around for a day or two and see if that oh so charming vagueness she presents on stage is something she creates – an affectation – or if it is just the way she is. I saw her in Proof awhile back, and in the first scene her character was supposed to have been up all night drinking, so the vagueness worked. Her next scene occurred after a full night's sleep and she was just as vague. So, obviously, she has a thing going here and is saddled up to ride for a long time.
Only I can never forget that it's Parker up there – and while she is at times both funny and charming, I wonder what it would be like with someone who could (to paraphrase a famous review) run the gamut of emotion further than from A to B.
Still and all, nothing gets in the way of the glow from playwright Sarah Ruhl's squirrelly little mind. The plot is all in the title. What would happen if a dead man’s cell phone rang, and you answered? Our gal Jean (Parker) not only answers, she takes messages. It’s too late (but not quite) for her to have a live relationship with the dead man, so she creates one with him in death. His death, not hers. Sort of. Message-taking leads to meetings, which lead to dinner, which leads to family involvements.
Now, it so happens that at this point in her life, Jean is a compulsive creator of tales. If one small lie would help the bereaved family into which she is being drawn, then a whopper might do even better. Although she knows nothing about the dead man, she has no trouble fabricating his admiration and affection for pretty much the entire world. She is, after all, the keeper of the phone. A responsibility she takes very seriously.
Turns out the dead man, Gordon, trafficked in body parts and was, by and large, a pretty crappy guy. And he has left behind enough wounded family to prove it. Ruhl, however, doesn’t ask that we merely take hearsay from his brittle mother, confused widow, and belittled brother as evidence. At the top of the second act we get to discover his shriveled self through a fabulous fifteen-minute monologue delivered to perfection by T. Ryder Smith.
The problem is that the rest of the second act never measures up to that opening monologue. It’s not boring, because I don’t think Ruhl knows how to be boring. It just lacks the sort of steady drive that the first act has, and with Parker at the helm, there is nothing to keep it glued in place. So, off it floats. There are epiphanies for all, living and dead, with the result that Jean decides making things up is not half as fun as living and loving full out and requited. The last line is gifted to us by Gordon’s brother, now out from under the shadow of his very dark older brother: “Now we kiss, and the lights go out.”
Words to live by.
Dead Man's Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Anne Bogart
WITH: David Aaron Baker (Dwight), Kathleen Chalfant (Mrs. Gottlieb), Carla Harting (the Other Woman), Kelly Maurer (Hermia), Mary-Louise Parker (Jean) and T. Ryder Smith (Gordon).
Sets and costumes by G. W. Mercier; lighting by Brian H. Scott; sound by Darron L. West. Presented by Playwrights Horizons, Tim Sanford, artistic director. At the Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42 St., NYC; (212) 279-4200. Through March 30. Running time: 2 hours.