Time was when a fellow kicked the bucket, the public and personal relationships that orbited around him suddenly ceased. But in the high-tech era, that doesn’t necessarily happen, suggests playwright Sarah Ruhl in “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” a quirky little comedy making its debut at D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theater prior to its staging in February at Playwrights Horizons in New York. Ruhl’s zany probe of the razor-thin line between life and death offers some enjoyable insights into modern-day ironies but doesn’t reach for the heights achieved in her earlier works.
Following up on her weighty epic “Passion Play” and existential comedy “The Clean House,” both extremely original and profound works, Ruhl takes a relative breather with this comparatively slight offering — which gained an intermission during previews, switching from one act to two.
Play opens with a mousy and, it turns out, seriously unfulfilled woman (Polly Noonan) seated in a quiet cafe next to a gentleman who curiously fails to answer his incessantly ringing cell phone. When the woman finally steps in to quiet the annoying ring, she discovers he’s passed away.
She then turns the stranger’s death into a self-appointed mission as earnest personal secretary, assuming custody of the still-busy phone and posing as a longtime colleague. Never mind that the deceased gentleman turns out to be an immoral jerk who sold human organs on the black market. As she dutifully offers comfort to family and friends, she must grapple with the meaning of mortality and other cosmic issues.
Although it was commissioned by Playwrights Horizons, “Cell Phone” struck the fancy of Woolly a.d. Howard Shalwitz and director Rebecca Bayla Taichman when Ruhl was in D.C. for the two earlier plays. Along with Noonan, who has appeared in four other works by Ruhl and was envisioned in the role by the writer, the cast includes other Woolly regulars.
As Noonan’s character asserts control by fabricating stories and refusing to relinquish the phone, Ruhl mines the comic setup with an array of supporting characters that includes an overbearing mother (Sarah Marshall), a humorless wife (Naomi Jacobson) and a mistress (Jennifer Mendenhall). Rich Foucheux plays the thoroughly loathsome deceased, who returns to embellish the proceedings with his personal brand of callousness.
Staging the action on Neil Patel’s functional set of a semi-circular tile wall with large window and hidden door, Taichman keeps the atmosphere generally tense as she works the joke with stillness-breaking phone calls and assorted high jinks. The play’s life-and-death profundities tend to get lost in the antics, but “Cell Phone” nonetheless delivers a fresh and humorous look at the times we live in.