By Sarah Ruhl
Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Reviewed by Janice Cane
A couple of months ago, I watched Rick Foucheux sit in a chair and reflect back on the life of the character he played. A couple of nights ago, I had the unexpected pleasure of watching him do it again. Unexpected because his character is dead. A pleasure because I discovered that Foucheux not only is a very capable dramatic actor, but also a gifted comedic actor with perfect timing.
Foucheux’s marvelously expressive face is as hilarious as the script in Dead Man’s Cell Phone, with wry twists of the mouth and sardonically raised eyebrows. He and Polly Noonan, as Jean, share this gift, which seems to embody the play itself. Dead Man’s Cell Phone raises an eyebrow at the many ironies of life, and manages to use humor to touch on the poignancy of death.
Gordon is the dead man in question, and Jean is the stranger who answers his cell phone. This scene opens the play, and from there, the audience is taken on a funny, wacky ride as Jean meets Gordon’s family and business associates.
Jean pretends to be Gordon’s employee as an excuse to keep his phone and essentially enter the lives of those he left behind, because she’s clearly led a lonely life until now. She wants to “remember everything, even other people’s memories.” Only problem is, Gordon’s line of business breaks all kinds of international and ethical laws.
Jean’s lies become increasingly outlandish, and she just gets more and more caught up in them, posthumously transforming Gordon from a man who rarely said “I love you” to one who declared his love with salt shakers and spoons. Watching Noonan rapturously spin these tales is a laugh-out-loud delight. In fact, her entire performance is so convincing that I simply cannot imagine that she is normal in real life.
Jean is technically the only out-of-place person at Gordon’s funeral and dinner table-after all, she didn’t know him; she only consumed a fateful bowl of soup next to him in a café-but as far as characters in the play, Jean is among the most realistic. Perhaps if Gordon had known more people like Jean, he would miss more about corporeal life than lobster bisque.
Simply put, Gordon’s mother is completely and totally off-the-wall crazy. As Mrs. Gottlieb, Sarah Marshall is often very, very funny, but many times when the audience around me was cracking up, I felt like I wasn’t in on the joke. For me, Mrs. Gottlieb’s level of insanity was a distraction in an otherwise insightful and entertaining play.
I’m not sure if this was a decision by Marshall-who I absolutely adored in playwright Sarah Ruhl’s other premiere at Woolly Mammoth, Clean House-or if director Rebecca Bayla Taichman led her that way, or if Ruhl wrote the grieving Mrs. Gottlieb that way, but she’s not the only wacky element in this play. Jean gets herself into some pretty nutty situations that perplexed me more than entertained me.
Marshall is not the only one returning to Ruhl’s work here. Taichman adeptly directed the amazing Clean House two years ago, and Naomi Jacobson also appeared in it. Here, Jacobson plays Hermia, Gordon’s bitterly bereft widow who speaks volumes in her first scene with a few agitated twitches and sharp glances. Indeed, her facial expressions rival Foucheux’s and Noonan’s.
Noonan has worked with Ruhl on just about everything else the enormously talented playwright has done. The rest of the cast is new to her work. Bruce Nelson plays Dwight, Gordon’s lesser-loved brother and Jean’s kindred spirit, with endearing sweetness. Jennifer Mendenhall is highly amusing as “the other woman,” but like the mother, this character is too over-the-top for my taste. Nevertheless, Taichman chose her cast wisely.
More than death, love is what Dead Man’s Cell Phone ultimately is about. Love of self, love of family, love of strangers, love of money, love of cell phones, love of paper, love of red meat. Jean lies shamelessly to Gordon’s family to convince them of his love for them. But when she meets Gordon in Ruhl’s quirky take on purgatory-including naked laundry-she needs only tell the truth to make him feel loved.
Because it skews so much toward the wacky, Dead Man’s Cell Phone didn’t touch and tickle me as much as Clean House did, but it still made me marvel at Ruhl’s intelligent, biting wit. Bizarre quirkiness aside, I loved this play for the hilarious one-liners that filled my notebook, for its abundance of irony and for the social commentaries it offered. I also loved it for Neil Patel’s beautiful set design and Colin K. Bills’ perfect lighting.
Go find out what you love about Dead Man’s Cell Phone, and then try to be patient as you wait for Sarah Ruhl’s next ingenious offering.
(Running time: just under two hours) Dead Man’s Cell Phone runs through July 8 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. N.W. Tickets may be purchased online