Dead Man's Cell Phone
This is the Sarah Ruhl work that has finally made us ask, What will it take for the American theater to realize the playwright has no clothes? To be fair, Cell Phone is not as infuriating as, say, Ruhl’s Passion Play was at the Goodman last fall. But neither is Cell Phone trying so hard to have something to say. This play, in fact, doesn’t seem to be trying very hard to do anything at all. It feels like a toss-off, a writing exercise Ruhl might have worked on between real plays.
Jean, an apparent social misfit, answers the incessantly ringing cell phone of a man who has quietly died at the café table next to hers; thanks to her impulse to comfort his loved ones, she insinuates herself into their lives. Incessantly quirky Ruhl seems to want to explore the ways that technology such as mobile phones makes us both more and less accessible. But while some parts of Thebus’s staging provoke—both Mary Beth Fisher and Molly Regan, as the dead man’s wife and mother, respectively, achieve stylized humanity—the endeavor is hampered by Polly Noonan’s performance as Jean. Where director Jessica Thebus and the rest of her cast find something approaching heightened reality, Noonan (who played the village-idiot character in Passion Play) appears mentally incapacitated once again. If there’s anything to be enjoyed in Ruhl’s paper-thin, aggressive whimsy and wordplay, Noonan renders it in invisible ink.