Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Parker 1, Ruhl 0

Dead Man’s Cell Phone
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Anne Bogart
Starring Mary-Louise Parker, David Aaron Baker, Kathleen Chalfant, Carla Harting, Kelly Maurer, T. Ryder Smith
Performances February 9 through March 25, 2008

Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street

Smith and Parker in Dead Man's Cell Phone (photo: Joan Marcus)
There is no more incandescent stage or screen performer than Mary-Louise Parker, a rare actress who blends wholesomeness with sex appeal, naïveté with shrewdness, and flightiness with a tough inner strength in whatever part she plays. When she originated the role of Catherine, the daughter of an eminent mathematician, in Proof, her winning manner and easy grace illuminated the complexities in David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

Parker’s luminous presence can even brighten an otherwise lifeless affair like Dead Man’s Cell Phone, a very minor play by Sarah Ruhl, who has been supplying diminishing returns to local theatergoers over the past year: Her Lincoln Center Theater debut, The Clean House, had moments of insight interspersed among the whimsical dross, but her updated Eurydice at Second Stage was a leaden take on a classic tragedy. Dead Man’s Cell Phone stirs together unfunny comedy, a witless spoofing of Hitchcockian thrillers, and anything-goes surrealism in an old-hat cautionary tale about the dangers of our technology-struck world. The result is an unpalatable stew.

Parker plays Jean, a seemingly normal woman who, while minding her own business at a café, answers the cell phone of Gordon, a middle-aged man who has just died at a nearby table. Jean is drawn into the lives of Gordon’s family and those he worked with, and is soon caught up in a plot that’s less absurdist than absurd.

Dead Man's Cell Phone begins as a lively comedy about how acting out of frustration (answering an annoyingly ringing phone) can have lasting consequences for someone who values her privacy. But the play soon falls apart, due to the one-note humor of Jean continuing to answer Gordon’s phone and the quickly palling swipes at our dependence on electronic devices at the expense of human interaction.

Eventually, the play collapses even further into sticky metaphysical bunk about how our afterlives are populated by those who love us (or something like that). Ruhl goes so far as to toss in quotations by Dickens and Donne; these are at least more artfully phrased than her own dialogue, which strains for profundity but remains mundane. Director Anne Bogart also cranks up Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” a musical cliché that should finally be put to rest.

A game cast is defeated by the material, although Kathleen Chalfant daringly throws caution to the wind in playing Gordon’s obnoxious mother. As for Parker, she nearly pulls off the miraculous feat of making Jean a sympathetic character and not merely a candidate for a strait-jacket. Her manner of speaking in a flat, wary monotone is delightful; simply by drawing out a single syllable, like “yes” or “no,” this actress approaches aural poetry. Even Parker’s walk, which echoes her voice, is something to behold. Too bad her glorious presence is wasted on an ultimately trivial play.

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