The abiding obsession with love and death that rippled through Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” and “The Clean House” is again in evidence in her eccentric new comedy, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone.” But while director Anne Bogart’s cerebral approach has served to elucidate the work of writers like Charles Mee, bringing coherence to his often unruly collages, it douses Ruhl’s oddball lyricism in manneristic coldness. The mismatch between playwright and director stretches the fragile charms of this unsatisfying commission from Playwrights Horizons even thinner.
The big disappointment here is the misuse of Mary-Louise Parker, whose film and television career has kept her increasingly absent from New York stages. Playing a mousy woman not entirely comfortable in her own skin, and speaking in a cartoonish drone, Parker’s natural, nutsy whimsicality is stifled by affectation. And while her connection with the plays of Craig Lucas underlines similarities between “Cell Phone” and that writer’s work from the 1980s, the comparisons are unfavorable.
An intriguing title and an equally strong premise for existential comedy, the play chronicles what happens when sweet-souled Holocaust museum worker Jean (Parker) comes into possession of a phone belonging to Gordon (T. Ryder Smith), who dies at the next cafe table to her while coveting her bowl of lobster bisque.
Despite never having met the man while he was breathing, and initially knowing nothing of his sinister line of work trafficking in human organs, Jean becomes desperate to somehow keep Gordon alive by answering his calls. She poses as his colleague and begins trying to set things right with the thorny man’s friends and family, convincing his mother (Kathleen Chalfant, in imperiously dotty dowager mode), widow (Kelly Maurer) and mistress (Carla Harting) that he died while reaffirming his love for each of them.
Ironing out life’s messes already was a central element in the far superior “Clean House,” but like many rehashed ideas here, it has no emotional weight. Ruhl toys with themes of remembrance and redemption, of offering even the most morally dubious character a cleansing of the soul. She also touches on frequently heard reflections concerning the isolation of people in an increasingly technology-dependent society. But there’s too little follow-through in the unfocused second act.
Bogart’s glacial pacing and fussy scene changes should allow these themes time to resonate but they just sit there, accumulating more quirks than clarity.
Ruhl’s trademark compassion is all over Jean, and Parker grows more disarming as the play progresses — despite the monotone delivery and windup-doll walk. There are touching moments in her connection with Gordon’s unassuming brother Dwight (David Aaron Baker), depicting two gentle people at odds with the world at large, drawn together like magnets. Underscoring the play’s ambivalence toward the ubiquitous cell phone, Jean and Dwight bond over their love of stationery. “I think heaven must be like an embossed invitation,” she sighs.
However, when Jean gets sucked into Gordon’s dangerous professional life and a funny Hitchcockian encounter sends her spinning into the underworld in a typically Ruhlian flight of fancy, the play becomes like “Eurydice” redux, without the emotional payoff.
Smith gives Gordon a jaundiced malevolence that’s certainly arresting, but mostly the actors are too constrained by the flimsy play’s preciousness to create full-bodied characters.
Brian H. Scott’s sharply defined lighting and Darron L. West’s brooding soundscape lend some heat and texture to G.W. Mercier’s chilly design of sliding panels. But for a play about the importance of conveying love while people are still around to receive it, Ruhl’s comedy is distant, flat and almost as stiff as the original cell phone owner.