Arts & Culture » Theater

Null and Droid: Playwright Sarah Ruhl kills with Dead Man's Cell Phone



If only Jean had not stopped for the lobster bisque. In Dead Man's Cell Phone, another excursion into the realm of the fantastical from the ever-inventive Sarah Ruhl, the decision by our heroine to visit a sidewalk café triggers a downward spiral that makes Alice's adventures in wonderland seem like child's play. Nor is the problem merely the bisque. Jean also makes the fatal mistake of asking the man at the next table to turn off his incessantly ringing cell phone. Fatal indeed, because that man — we will come to know him as Gordon, and a shady character indeed — happens to be dead. Jean is about to be drawn into his toxic post-existence.

In no time at all, Jean (Alex Woodruff, whose straight sincerity provides a nice contrast to the play's quirky universe) finds herself at dinner with Gordon's family. The mood is awkward, and the mother (who earlier had praised Jean as being "like a very small casserole" — and how often do you hear that compliment?) soon leaves the room overcome with grief at the loss of her son. A few minutes later, a keening howl is heard from offstage. Gordon's brother Dwight tells Jean not to be concerned; that's only Mother crying. When Jean suggests that the racket doesn't sound like crying, Dwight has a simple explanation: "She does it different."

Those four words define Sarah Ruhl. No one else today writes scripts quite like she does. She is the Muhammad Ali of playwrights: floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee. Even as she depicts the profound loneliness of the human soul, there's an airy lightness to Ruhl's writing. It's not so much that she's a rule breaker; it's more a sense that she has no idea playwriting has ever been bound by rules. Hence, her scripts are boundless flights of fancy.

Consider, for instance, the magic of embossed paper. Jean unpredictably — and just about everything in Ruhl's world is unexpected — finds herself bonding with Dwight, the brother of the dead cell-phone owner she never knew, through a textured conversation about stationery. "I think Heaven must be like an embossed invitation," Jean says. Then Ruhl includes the following stage direction: "Embossed stationery moves through the air slowly, like a snow parade. Lanterns made of embossed paper, houses made of embossed paper, light falling on paper...." How do you transfer such an oblique notion to the stage? One can only imagine the conversations director Tom Martin had with set and lighting designer Mark Wilson for this Saint Louis University student production. But they have succeeded in creating a moment of ineffable loveliness.

Not all of the play is ineffable. For much of the evening, loveliness takes a back seat to craziness. Although Ruhl is usually a complete original, Act One, especially, feels like something out of Seinfeld. Elaine once became inextricably linked to a person who did not exist. (And who doesn't remember the Soup Nazi's lobster bisque?) But if Act One seems to evoke Ruhl at her most playful, Act Two becomes more grounded. Ruhl's voice changes. The metaphor of the cell phone as an agent of communication between strangers somehow gives way to plot. But anyone who was charmed by the Rep's studio stagings of Ruhl's The Clean House and, more recently, In the Next Room or the vibrator play, anyone who recalls the wistful fantasy of the Orange Girls' Eurydice, should welcome this opportunity to travel to places heretofore unknown in the company of one of America's most refreshing playwrights. Her voice is authentic, idiosyncratic and often breathtakingly graceful. That's a pretty good foundation for an evening of theater.

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.