Sarah Ruhl's new play has an intriguing premise-what happens when someone takes the cell phone of someone who just died-and marks the return of Mary-Louise Parker to the New York stage after a four-year absence. Like Ruhl's Eurydice,Dead Man's Cell Phone involves interaction between the living and the dead. But it's a slighter, less mystical, and less magical play.
Jean (Parker) is sitting in a café when she hears a nearby cell phone ring repeatedly. She goes over to the table where the phone's owner, Gordon (T. Ryder Smith), sits unmoving and expressionless. It turns out, of course, that he's dead. But that doesn't stop Jean from answering his phone. I'll take a message, she says, even after realizing that Gordon is dead. Jean decides to hold on to the phone, which brings her into contact with Gordon's mistress (Carla Harting), wife Hermia (Kelly Maurer), mother (Kathleen Chalfant ), and brother Dwight (David Aaron Baker). I'll keep his phone as long as I live, Jean says with utmost sincerity.
Because she is particularly well intentioned, Jean tries to make the people in Gordon's life feel better about their relationships with him. This involves inventing stories, since Jean never even met Gordon though she tells people they worked together. She tells his mistress that Gordon said he loved her, informs Hermia that he wrote her a note before he died, and fibs to his mother that he tried to call her the day he died. As for Dwight, he and Jean hit it off in a stationery store. (Their shared love of stationery makes sparks fly.)
As in Eurydice, there are whimsical moments that probably won't be to everyone's taste. The most winning one for me was the unexpected appearance of Hermia in a figure-skating outfit. (She was a former skater.) In the second act, Dead Man's Cell Phone becomes increasingly concerned with the afterlife. For instance, Gordon delivers a monologue from beyond the grave about his grisly line of work and a bowl of lobster bisque that eluded him.
Along with the supernatural elements, Ruhl provides dashes of humor. Employing a somewhat ditsy voice and an affected walk, Parker is frequently amusing. Appealing as she is, however, her performance isn't nearly as memorable as her work in How I Learned to Drive and Proof. (For that matter, she's more winning on the Showtime series Weeds.) Chalfant has fun with her role as Gordon's haughty mother, who wears an array of furs and chooses You'll Never Walk Alone for her son's funeral service. The other cast members, directed by Anne Bogart, also have funny scenes.
While this isn't Ruhl's strongest play to date, she has a distinctive style and an original voice. I look forward to seeing where her imagination will take her next.