'Dead Man's Cell Phone,' Answering Some Biggies

Naomi Jacobson, left, as the wife of the deceased, whose phone has wound up in the possession of a stranger (Polly Noonan) in Sarah Ruhl's dark new comedy.
Naomi Jacobson, left, as the wife of the deceased, whose phone has wound up in the possession of a stranger (Polly Noonan) in Sarah Ruhl's dark new comedy. (By Stan Barouh -- Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 18, 2007

After you're gone, how will you be remembered? In her new oddball comedy, "Dead Man's Cell Phone," Sarah Ruhl chews on that question in a smartly entertaining way -- entrusting the memory of a not-so-dearly-departed man to a woman he never met.

See, the guy (Rick Foucheux) drops dead -- or rather, sits dead -- at a table in a diner. Then, as the title suggests, his cellphone rings. And the stranger at the next table (Polly Noonan) answers it.

The situation's ghoulishness might prompt a stranger to shout desperately into the device for assistance. But where others would see the need for an ambulance, Noonan's mousy little Jean sees only opportunity. To her perverse pleasure, she discovers that merely being the voice on the other end of the dead man's calls gives her instant entree to the world he left behind.

The comedic potential of this premise is delectably demonstrated in Woolly Mammoth's world-premiere production, guided with whimsical acuity by director Rebecca Bayla Taichman. In this case the windup proves more effective than the follow-through; the screwball mechanics don't resolve themselves as satisfyingly as one might have hoped, as the plot transports us from the funny precincts of terra firma to the wispier rooms of the afterlife.

Still, the comedy packs a goodly amount of enjoyment, especially as we watch the dead man's relatives, distracted by their own dramas, blithely buying Jean's stories. And the setup provides a pliant springboard for the exclamation-point clowning of Sarah Marshall, Jennifer Mendenhall and others in a cast of first-string Washington talent.

Ruhl has a thing for the rituals constructed around death and dying, the ways in which we fear, mythologize and romanticize it. In her work "The Clean House," a woman stricken by cancer seeks to die laughing; in "Eurydice," the story of Orpheus, who goes to Hades in a vain effort to rescue his beloved, is recounted with pop-cultural accents, while "Passion Play, a Cycle" examines manners in which the Crucifixion is reenacted in different historical periods.

Ruhl's fascination with death never feels morbid, because satire is her oxygen. (In "Cell Phone," for instance, when the dead man's mother stands at the pulpit in a Catholic church and declares, "Let's have a hymn," the song that follows is "You'll Never Walk Alone.") Ruhl is also a keen observer of social custom, and though she sometimes loses her way in the thicket of theatrical ideas, there is something forever vital in her lyrical and biting takes on how we behave.

In "Dead Man's Cell Phone," it's the deep-seated need for attention in all of us that Ruhl exploits, the notion that by knowing what to say, we can make someone listen to us. How often have you told a story to an acquaintance and embellished it ever so slightly, because you sensed that reality was not quite riveting enough?

Noonan's peculiar, misguided Jean wants to be comforter of and confidante to the survivors of Foucheux's Gordon, for reasons we're never let in on. It's the cellphone that allows her to pass so effortlessly into their lives, for Gordon's mistress (Mendenhall), mother (Marshall) and wife (Naomi Jacobson) all assume that Jean must have been intimate with Gordon if she possessed such an essential object of his. That it never occurs to them that Jean might have simply stolen the phone says more here about their knowledge of Gordon than of their wariness of poseurs.

Jean is both sly and naive: Invited to dine at the home of Gordon's affluent mother -- in a hilarious scene that seems to borrow from "The Addams Family" -- Jean quickly figures out exactly what each relative needs to hear about Gordon's dying words. (In Gordon's owlish brother, played with an endearing sheepishness by Bruce Nelson, she finds a soul mate.)

Given what we eventually learn about Gordon, the joke is on Jean: His, um, livelihood was about as morally compromising as can be conceived. But in spite of that, her lies do some good. We learn only one detail of Jean's biography, that she worked (or works) at a Holocaust museum. This becomes significant, as the play revolves so essentially around the issue of how we memorialize the dead -- and how the remembering of them changes us.

Taichman, in concert with her designers, gives a stylish urgency to "Dead Man's Cell Phone." Costume designer Kate Turner-Walker has rarely put together a wardrobe with more panache: The looks for the ladies are awash in fashion-spread wit and get a bold frame from set designer Neil Patel, whose wall of white tile shifts effortlessly from earthly to celestial domains.

The performances are as striking as the outfits. Marshall plays the anxious doyenne Mrs. Gottlieb as a funny martinet who delivers withering lines such as, "When you're 39, your eggs are 40." In chic specs and a salt-and-pepper helmet of hair, she looks a bit like a lady-who-lunches mistakenly accepted into the space program. Jacobson, solid as always, is decked out deliciously in a black dress and fall from the 1960s, and the gifted Mendenhall, in a do like Evita's, makes fine work of her one substantive scene.

Foucheux, you should know, gets to play more than dead, and he brings Gordon to a potent, bilious boil. Noonan, a muse of sorts for Ruhl (she portrayed the village idiot in Arena Stage's premiere of "Passion Play") makes of Jean's blank neediness a lovely mystery. If she were a paint chip, it would be beige -- if only to offset the other hues on Taichman and Ruhl's vibrant palette.

Dead Man's Cell Phone , by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman. Lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Martin Desjardins; music direction, Alan Paul. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Through July 8 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit

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