Based on a 1995 stage play, "Call Waiting" is a solo piece that deftly mixes comic one-liners with poignant insights into a middle-aged woman's lonely life. Indie pic should attract a distributor based on the play's strong notices and the commanding presence of Caroline Aaron, who reprises her role as a homebound hausfrau with unrestricted access to the phone.

Based on a 1995 stage play, “Call Waiting” is a solo piece that deftly mixes comic one-liners with poignant insights into a middle-aged woman’s lonely life. Indie pic should attract a distributor based on the play’s strong notices and the commanding presence of Caroline Aaron, who reprises her role as a homebound hausfrau with unrestricted access to the phone.

In lesser hands, the 96-minute monologue would have become rambling, repetitious or, worse, dull. However, Aaron and tyro feature helmer Jodi Binstock have worked with Dori Fram’s script to open up the piece for film through creative blocking, smart production design and a camera given free rein. Most notably, Binstock and crew have played up the cinematic possibilities by adding a film-within-a-film device that provides a tantalizing — if not fully realized — opportunity for mise-en-abime.

It’s awhile before viewers are even aware of the framing device. When audience meets Judy Baxter, she’s alone, suffering from chronic urinary cystitis, which consigns her to her home. A frustrated writer, she labors to “write one true sentence a day,” in the motivational words she’s pasted on her computer. But she can’t seem to do even that. So she passes the time on the phone — talking to her best girlfriend, estranged sister, husband (whom she suspects of infidelity) and the daughter who’s about to get married, among others.

Suddenly a director yells “Cut,” and the image shifts from vibrant hues to desaturated color; actress Carol Lane is playing Judy Baxter on a film set. But the sole speaker, still, is Aaron, now calling her agent and lamenting the travails of making low-budget indie films. Quickly — too quickly to offer much insight — the camera is rolling again, with Baxter back on the phone.

Through the various phone conversations, a picture of Baxter emerges. She’s overweight, insecure, neurotic and obsessive, but kindhearted and attentive. Fram’s script keeps the laughs coming (Baxter’s meditation mantra: “DKNY”) but also reveals the character’s darker side. Since the calls overlap, it’s often hard to tell exactly who Baxter is speaking to, but it matters little, since the calls are vehicles for character revelation.

Aaron, who is never offscreen, holds the camera with a forceful self-confidence and brazen charisma.

It would have helped if the filmmakers had beefed up the secondary plotline and given more time to the film set; as a skeletal device, it tends to feel a bit extraneous. But there are fascinating moments when the two characters intersect, and viewers aren’t sure if they’re watching Baxter or Lane.

Call Waiting

Production

A Waiting Co. production. Produced by Dan Bucatinsky. Executive producers, Don Roos, Susan Dietz. Directed by Jodi Binstock. Screenplay, Dori Fram, based on her play.

Crew

Camera (color), Michael Goi; editor, Glenn Garland; production designer, Ryan Welsch; costume designer, Erica Davenport; sound (Dolby SRD), Bill Reinhardt, Jason Brooks; assistant directors, Michael Panitz, Michael Mauerer. Reviewed at Santa Barbara Film Festival, Feb. 1, 2004. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Judy Baxter/Carol Lane - Caroline Aaron
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