As the fourth production of their 88th season—an incredible achievement for a local community theater—the Ross Valley Players (RVP) is offering Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone. This comes just four years after the company presented the same author’s The Clean House, whose mostly enthusiastic reception from critics and ticket-buyers may have influenced the current choice.
Ruhl’s résumé is extraordinarily impressive. She learned her craft under Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive) at Brown University, whose drama department is one of the country’s leading germinators of playwrights. She also has been recognized with a MacArthur Genius Fellowship (2006), the Steinberg Distinguished Playwright, Lilly, PEN Center, Whiting and Feminist Press awards. To top it off, she was a finalist for the 2005 and 2010 Pulitzer Prize.
Despite all of this, however, having now seen and reviewed five of Ruhl’s plays in credible Bay Area productions that include (along with RVP’s two) Eurydice and In the Next Room: The Vibrator Play at Berkeley Rep and Stage Kiss at San Francisco Playhouse, I’ve concluded that there is something about her writing that has a distancing effect: Too quirky, too disjointed, too deliberately precious, too laden with ideological baggage.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a perfect example. Billed as a comedy, but containing very little that is really funny, the play’s central theme is that we are living during a time when humans, who are by nature social animals, are finding it hard to connect with one another. To bridge the widening gap, technology offers the cell phone as a substitute for personal interaction. What could be more useful in a fractured world than a device that offers instant contact 24/7 with anyone within range of a signal tower?
Unfortunately, however, according to Ruhl (and a multitude of others), it hasn’t worked out that way. Here’s the setup: In the play’s opening scene, Jean (Deborah Murphy), her insouciant young protagonist, is sitting alone at a café table enjoying a bowl of lobster bisque when she notices that the man seated at a table nearby doesn’t seem to be eating his lentil soup. In fact, he isn’t moving at all, even to answer his continuously ringing cell phone. Overcome by curiosity and ever anxious to be helpful, she approaches him and discovers that he is dead. Startled, she calls 911, but decides to keep the phone so she can inform callers of his demise.
This seemingly altruistic act is followed by others that inexorably draw her into a web of relatives, friends and business associates, with the spider being Gordon Gottlieb (Steve Price), the dead man, who is ultimately revealed to be an illegal trafficker in human body parts. There’s Gordon’s irascible mother (Christine Macomber), his long-suffering wife (Marilyn Hughes), his exhibitionistic mistress (Nan Ayers), a vicious body-parts merchant in South Africa (also played by Ms. Ayers) and a “lost soul” brother (Peter Warden) who yearns to find his true love, or, if she isn’t available, anybody who will pay him attention.
That’s quite an assemblage. Ruhl seems to suggest that it is Jean’s decision to respond to the constant ringing of the dead man’s cell phone that truncates her relations with each of them, but actually it is more the author’s well-known fondness for using her characters as mouthpieces for her own views that makes meaningful relationships next to impossible. Thus, in the series of monologues and duologues that pepper the play, she expounds on marriage, mortality, the practice of selling body parts, romantic love, sex, the afterlife, vegetarianism, modern technology, memory and other subjects that I’m afraid I’ve already forgotten.
Under Chloe Bronzan’s creative direction and with Deborah Murphy and Steve Price heading a proficient acting ensemble, RVP’s production strives to bring this dead man to life, but at the end there’s nobody to care about. What does linger is that devilish cell phone ringing to announce yet another change of topic. You find yourself silently begging Jean, “Enough already! Don’t answer.”
NOW PLAYING: Dead Man’s Cell Phone runs through March 25 at the Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center, Ross; 415/456-9555; rossvalleyplayers.com.