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.
The fact that the dead man (Gordon) steps forward in Act Two to say he fell in love with Jean at first sight because of a bowl of soup stretches credulity to the breaking point. Neil Simon, for one, knew that jokes can get out of hand and ruin the delicate fabric of comedy.
Still the play is very funny and full of great characters. Bart Lorenzo, who directs with a sure hand, has gotten himself quite a cast. Christina Pickles plays the dead man’s overbearing mom with just the right mix of sentiment and fangs. Shannon Holt, an expert at dippy and weird roles, scores again as his alcoholic wife. Andrew Borba plays Gordon’s put-upon brother with his feet firmly in reality. The ever-talented Nike Doukis plays Gordon’s other woman as well as a stranger in Gordon’s nefarious business dealings (he is a gun dealer to terrorists). Gordon is Lenny Von Dohlen, who invests the character with a strange energy and quirkiness all his own.
Though I found the play lacking in certain aspects, it is thoroughly entertaining if you can get over the premise. SCR has provided its audience and the playwright a chance to get to know each other again. (Last year they produced her more successful play Clean House.)
Dead Man’s Cell Phone plays at South Coast Repertory until Oct. 12.