Sarah Ruhl’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is an idiosyncratic work so indifferent to conventional norms that it will irk as many viewers as it captivates. Ruhl’s brand of deadpan magical whimsy is tailor-made for adults prone to see the modern world reflected in Wonderland, Toad Hall or Pooh Corner, though it may induce discomfort and even tedium in those who like their urban insights rendered straight up.
In mousy, plain-Jane Jean (Margaret Welsh), Ruhl invents her own contemporary Alice to explore the communications barriers separating us from our true selves and from each other. A natural-born empathizer (she works in a Holocaust museum), Jean receives a unique ticket out of her psychic isolation in taking possession of the titular device belonging to Gordon (Lenny Von Dohlen), in rigor mortis one cafe table away.
Jean is irresistibly impelled to take up the business of the deceased. Following the insistent rings to Gordon’s mother, wife, brother and mistress, she ministers to their grief by improvising last-minute love messages and makeshift consolation gifts.
The sweetly daffy Welsh buoyantly carries out what Jean believes were the final wishes of an essentially good man. But as secrets are revealed and evidence of Gordon’s checkered personality mounts, Jean is forced onto alternative paths leading her to both kinds of underworld, the earthly criminal and the ethereally eternal. (Ruhl’s plays often establish a free-access revolving door between this world and the next.)
An appealing cast maintains sympathy and interest even when the plot turns diffuse. Shannon Holt earns copious laughs as Gordon’s chilly widow, whose heavy drinking reveals an unplumbed warm center, and Nike Doukas displays a richly sensual, Melina Mercouri quality as a shady business associate.
Von Dohlen and Andrew Borba are capable, if not particularly comically distinctive, as the Gottlieb brothers, and Christina Pickles’ monstrous mom is likable, although she has not quite worked out a comfortable level of extravagant behavior. (A proffered spoon is meant to set off a firestorm, but the moment only sputters.)
That the gift of a spoon can disrupt a family hints at the kind of play “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is. Ditto a mother naming her son Dwight because she feels sorry for the underappreciated name, or a wife putting a new spin on sexual fantasy by seeing her husband as himself and herself as someone else.
Such flashes of casual nuttiness keep causing Jean and the audience to blink, though whether the blinking eventually turns into eyes wide open or tightly shut is an open question.
There’s something coolly European at work in Bart DeLorenzo’s sleek, clean production, all rough edges smoothed away. The range of settings Keith E. Mitchell creates with a few wall and furniture pieces seems continental in its elegant sparseness, complemented by Lap-Chi Chu’s keenly appropriate lighting.