Theater Reviews

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Mainstage Theater at Playwrights Horizons, New York
Through March 25

Mary-Louise Parker has returned to the New York stage after an absence of four years, and what a pleasure it is to see her again. One can hardly imagine a more felicitous combination than Parker's exquisitely tuned performance, Sarah Ruhl's enticing romantic comedy "Dead Man's Cell Phone" and the production's clever, minimalist staging by director Anne Bogart.

The premise of Ruhl's new play is the sort of darkly comic incident that anybody who either is addicted to cell phones or nourishes a healthy hatred of them will appreciate.

Fortysomething Gordon (the excellent T. Ryder Smith) is sitting in a restaurant one day having lunch when he dies. His cell phone, however, lives on, receiving calls and ringing. Jean (Parker), a quirky fellow diner who likes her quiet, takes charge of the offending instrument and, suffused with conflicting surges of repulsion, guilt and generosity, becomes involved with the people who continue to call, even though they know that the phone's owner is dead. There's Gordon's rich, obsessive mother (Kathleen Chalfant); his mistress (Carla Harting); and his unhappy wife, Hermia (Kelly Maurer). Jean meets them all, including Gordon's odd younger brother, a stationer named Dwight (David Aaron Baker), with whom she falls in love.

Ruhl has mingled death and romance in her plays before, notably in her Blackburn Prize winner "The Clean House" and the earlier "Euridyce."

But "Dead Man's Cell Phone" is lighter in tone and spirit, despite moments that purposely take us to the dark side (Gordon, it turns out, sold human organs on the black market). Not to worry, though. Ruhl, with Bogart's deft help, turns that plot twist into a kind of film noir spoof, and so the play rockets along, leading us fancifully in unanticipated directions.

Through much of this, Parker maintains a kind of deadpan attitude and voice, which adds to the comedy by being wonderfully at odds with the grim premise. From the moment when Jean gingerly but insistently nudges Gordon, who has died sitting up, she controls the comic mood. And when, toward the end of this two-hour-plus production, Jean emerges from her own near-death experience and declares her love to Dwight, she blossoms and lifts the production into a pleasurable happy-ever-after realm.

There is, of course, a theme running through Ruhl's newest, very theatrical jaunt. Cell phones are killers when it comes to making connections. The only true connections are the human kind, made through sex and love.

DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE
Presented by Playwrights Horizons
Credits:
Playwright: Sarah Ruhl
Director: Anne Bogart
Set and costume designer: G.W. Mercier
Lighting designer: Brian H. Scott
Soundscape: Darron L. West
Cast:
Jean: Mary-Louise Parker
Gordon: T. Ryder Smith
Mrs. Gottlieb: Kathleen Chalfant
The Other Woman: Carla Harting
Hermia: Kelly Maurer
Dwight: David Aaron Baker
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