EmptyJulianne Argyros Stage, Costa Mesa, Calif. (Through Oct. 12)
The West Coast premiere of Sarah Ruhl's "Dead Man's Cell Phone" is wildly clever and very funny, like a frothy opera (without music, that is) by Rossini, tinged by campy overtones of Edward Gorey.
The performance is outstanding on all counts, highlighted by numerous moments of utter brilliance. The only questions are whether director Bart DeLorenzo plays it too straight, and whether writer Ruhl loses her way in Act 2.
Whatever else it is, "Phone" is terrific entertainment. The story, about an unattached Jean (Margaret Welsh) who answers the cell phone of a dead stranger (Lenny Von Dohlen), takes off almost immediately into a series of breathlessly comic escapades and encounters that bog down occasionally when faced with "significant" issues of life and death (organ donors, red meat and the vicissitudes of love in parallel universes).
The cast of characters Ruhl assembles is led by the dead man's mother, Mrs. Gottlieb (an incomparable performance by Christina Pickles), an imperious old hag who almost brings down the theater with an "it's not nice to fool Mother Nature" moment; and the dead man's widow, Hermia (a spectacular performance by Shannon Holt), whose alcohol-fueled bar scene suggests a Cloris Leachman with a whole new set of comic moves and is alone worth the price of admission.
Throughout the evening, Ruhl's confidence and wonderfully fluent writing, at her best when it verges dangerously and delightfully on the facile, seems to be transmitted to the actors as if were being shot into their veins. The lines are never merely funny ("I call him every day," Mrs. Gottlieb says. "I keep forgetting that he's dead"), they're custom-fitted to each character.
It turns out that Jean is as crazy as any of the characters; it's just that she's crazy in a very sane way. And Welsh rises to the challenge playing this impossibly innocent hero with tremendous reserves of energy, warmth and an Alice in Wonderland sense of the absurd, even if, at first, she seems perilously subtle at revealing her nuttier side. Dohlen, too, despite a lack of focus in his voice, gives an impressive performance that starts with a blaze of glory opening Act 2.
Andrew Borba, as an unexpectedly delicious lover, and Nike Doukas, as a perfect caricature of a Cruella de Vil type, aid and abet in every way they can, though Ruhl doesn't give them quite the firepower they need to compete with the rest.
Angela Balogh Calin's costumes are a treat, whether they're whole outfits or accessories (a feathered hat pilfered from Robin Hood, an obscenely clinging fox stole). The dazzling array of beautiful sets create a succession of chic international environments with astonishing speed and mobility. The subtle yet powerfully surrealistic use of music, whether techno-minimalism, standard pop or angelic hymns, keeps the audience on its toes.
Although Dohlen's 10-minute soliloquy gets Act 2 off to a fabulous start, as matters progress Ruhl gets a bit lost in the thickets of sentiment and the necessity of wrapping it up. None of the solutions she fitfully tries is entirely satisfactory, and the last line of the play, though it brings down the curtain with a nice theatrical stroke, is disappointingly safe in light of what proceeds it.
Production: Presented South Coast Repertory.
Cast: Margaret Welsh, Lenny Von Dohlen, Christina Pickles, Nike Doukas, Shannon Holt, Andrew Borba.
Playwright: Sarah Ruhl.
Director: Bart DeLorenzo.
Set designer: Keith E. Mitchell.
Costume designer: Angela Balogh Calin.
Lighting designer: Lap-Chi Chu.
Sound designer: John Zalewski.
Production manager: Joshua Marchesi.
Casting: Joanne DeNaut.