Hello, Stein residence? Is Gertrude available? In her new play, poet Ariana Reines channels the dramatic voice of the influential writer, but to call “Telephone” a pastiche or homage would be to do it a disservice — there’s plenty of “there” there. In perfect concert with sound man Matt Hubbs and lighting designer Tyler Micoleau, helmer Ken Rus Schmoll pitches the absurd, occasionally hilarious play along fault lines of human communication that scrape together during encounters with Alexander Graham Bell, turn-of-the-century mental patient Miss St., and a series of men and women uncomfortably like ourselves.
Reines’ play starts at a central metaphor and then strikes out for the unknowable. It opens in the dark, with Pa Bell himself calling, “Watson, come here! I want you!” Bell (Gibson Frazier) and Thomas Watson (Matthew Dellapina) then launch into what looks like a 19th-century infomercial for the telephone. “Once, a voice spoke to Moses through a burning bush,” Bell enthuses to the audience. “And now any home or office can have a burning bush of its own!” continues Watson happily. What kind of weirdness is this?
This sales pitch breaks down as the two men discover they’re not entirely sure what’s going on, either. Investigating Marsha Ginsberg’s well-conceived set, they find that the door through which Bell called Watson is set into a free-hanging flat. They’re not in Bell’s house at all. Are they dead?
With a few carefully placed lines, Reines seems to suggest the pair are preserved forever within the telephone call that changed the world — like a crossed wire, Bell starts to murmur Haddaway’s 1993 dance hit “What is Love?” and then to speak in binary (“Oh one oh one one one one oh one”).
The problem with the telephone is that communication is not just words. It’s drawn breaths, tentative touches, bitten-off phrases and any number of other tics that have to be seen or felt. With “Telephone,” Reines outlines communication in the negative, using words to display what’s not there. Nowhere is this more effective than in the piece’s second section, in which schizophrenic Miss St. (Birgit Huppuch, who performs her nonsense dialogue with incredible energy) speaks to us at length and finally despairs, knowing we can’t understand her.
Miss St. is Babette S., a seamstress who was one of Jung’s patients and an early clinical example of schizophrenia. Hearing her speak, one desperately wants to understand her, but she’s oddly addicted to certain words — finality, irreplaceable — that she doesn’t comprehend. Whenever they come up, we lose her.
It’s maddening, and highly authentic, engendering pity when Babette’s illness finally thwarts her and our mutual desire to cross the interpersonal gulf with language. This woman is dramatically alone, even with a hundred people hearing her talk.
Designers Hubbs and Micoleau do effective work throughout, with long lighting cues and wonderful ambient noise (the cavernous sounds that accompany Watson’s fearful musings are particularly good). But the sound and lights are most effective in the play’s final section — a series of phone calls between three voices, all of which are involved in every possible relationship with one another.
As the voices and stories bleed into each other, Micoleau creates dim pools of light on Schmoll’s tableaux. Sometimes we can see nothing clearly but a hand; other times we see silhouettes so faint we can’t even determine the performers’ individual genders. Behind all this, Reines gives us evocative snatches of dialogue: “I don’t want to talk about the past,” says one male voice. “What else is there to talk about?” asks another. Pause. “What are you wearing?”
With exchanges like these, Reines advances the cause of adventurous theater by asking listeners to pay attention and then rewarding them for doing so, occasionally in gratifyingly silly ways. The play is frequently oblique, but not infuriatingly so. Its sense of the absurd ranges from existential terror to Stan-and-Ollie give and take (kudos to Dellapina and Frazier there, too); it wants to converse, rather than instruct. With “Telephone,” Reines has vaulted into a distinctly uncrowded category that hosts next-generational thinkers like Will Eno, and it’s a pleasure to have her there.