Arlington — A pretty girl is sitting in a cafe when a man's cell phone starts to ring. He doesn't answer. Is this guy asleep or what? Annoyed by the incessant, cloying ringtone, she goes to his table for a closer look. He's dead.
She shouts frantically for the absent waitress, and then answers the damned phone in Sarah Ruhl's fascinating play, Dead Man's Cell Phone, a darkly comic inquiry into the surreal link we've formed with our ever-present mobile phones. Even when you're dead, you're on call.
Sharon Kay Miller directs the smart production with wit and a light hand at Theatre Arlington. Wide-eyed, willowy Jenna Anderson plays Jean, the young woman who picks up the phone and drops into an increasingly complicated connection to the deceased Gordon (tall, lanky Brendan McMahon in dual roles). Jean just can't stop answering his cellphone, drawing her into the dead man's life and the lives of the people who keep trying to reach him.
Jean meets his cold-eyed, monstrously sophisticated mother, hilariously embodied by a high-toned, strutting Lindsay Hayward. His uptight, miserable wife Hermia, a mournfully funny Whitney Blake Dean, glances both ways before whining, but becomes a giddy party girl with a few glasses of wine. "I call him every day," she confesses to Jean. "I keep forgetting he's dead."
Then there's Dwight (McMahon in glasses and a wooly sweater), Gordon's sweet-natured younger brother who takes an instant romantic interest in pretty, upbeat Jean. In one bizarre scene shift, even dead Gordon gets to speak his mind in a terribly funny soliloquy from the beyond, delivered by McMahon with the speedy shift of features that might be Jim Carrey as a mobster with a heart of gold. The audience clapped and whistled.
A surly, seductive Taylor Staniforth plays The Other Woman, a wiggly sex bomb with a Polish accent who gets off on applying two coats of red lipstick in public. She's also a sinister, gun-toting accomplice as the plot wanders off to a small African nation.
All assume Jean had a close relationship with the dead man, since she answers his cellphone. All are eager to know his last words, and Jean doesn't disappoint them. A good listener and blatant liar, she hears what each of these distraught characters longs to hear from the dead man and does a brilliant job of delivering that message.
Even before the show begins, we're brought into the world of lonely people by Bryan Stevenson's minimal set design, a few tables and chairs backed by a three-part scrim filled with shifting images of Edward Hopper's famous paintings with their flat light and isolated figures. The people in a bar in "Nighthawks" is the most iconic painting, and the one we see first. Other Hopper images follow: the naked woman staring through a window, a woman in an office looking at a man who is looking away provoke curiosity and sadness. Like Hopper's evocative paintings, Ruhl's plays are about the space between people and things, about light that doesn't illuminate and ordinary words that struggle to reveal deep feelings.
Bill Eickenloff's sound design, a riff of jazz and pop songs, heightens the mood as we move from cafe to home to a foreign airport, to hell and back with a few props and table moves, maneuvered gracefully in the semi-dark between scenes by the players themselves. Even the ding-dong of the mobile phone has a pivotal role.
Anderson's naive and breathless Jean, the center of the play and the human connection that outlives the technically cellphone, is omnipresent and ready for anything. She might be Ruhl herself. Inquisitive, attractive, romance prone and a wildly inventive tale teller, Jean is full of mischief and eager to put imaginative, lyrical language into the mouth of the dead man.
Like the Greek playwrights Ruhl adores, her heroine invents whatever back story her listener needs to hear. The method in this faux-improvisational madness happens right in front of us. The fun of a Ruhl play is in the insight this free-wheeling approach invites, and the easy turns the plot takes.
Actors love Ruhl plays because they're freed up to play, and audiences like her suspense and humor. (Imprint Theatreworks in Dallas just mounted a hit production of In the Next Room (Or the Vibrator Play)) to sold-out audiences. What tales we mortals make up to comfort each other in the face of death and the disappointments of marriage and motherhood. In a closing scene, the lights fade and we see our adventuress and her guy in a charming scene that blends the surreal with old-time romantic movies. We follow, because, well, this is the tale we love to be told.
The play was written in 2008 when flip-top phones were in use and we were only just adjusting to the bizarreness of people shouting furious one-way conversations to some poor bastard on the other end of the line, and we were forced hear it, too. Now we take such intrusions for granted.
Ruhl's play nails the increasing isolation caused by cellphones even before the smartphone explosion and its partnering social media that has pushed the idea of electronic privacy into the ether of an invisible “cloud.” Maybe she does anticipate the catastrophe of the Internet. What if we have to wash our own clothes at laundromats in the afterlife, where our phones have left us. Surreal? Maybe. Absurd? Maybe not.