Ring-ring. Sarah Ruhl calling.

"Dead Man's Cell Phone," sparked by Dana Millican's deft blend of comedy and fantasy, pushes the right buttons to start Profile's season of Ruhl plays

A phone rings, and rings, and rings, and exasperatingly, its owner doesn’t answer it. He just sits at his café table, staring straight ahead, as if lost in thought, dreaming of the last bowl of lobster bisque he arrived too late to get.

Or – this might explain things – he’s dead. Dapper, self-involved, acerbic Gordon has been struck down amid pangs of hunger, and even sharper irritation at the young woman at the next table, who is just spooning in the last bite of the bisque he had specifically come to this oddly unstaffed café to eat.

Millican (left) and Green, swapping stories. Photo: David Kinder

Millican (left) and Green, swapping stories. Photo: David Kinder

That young woman, Jean (Dana Millican), equally irritated at the cell phone’s bleat, eventually answers it herself, and then keeps answering it, over and over, slipping into the shadows and abandoned realities of the dead man’s life as if it were a celestial obligation, or a gift.

Welcome to Dead Man’s Cell Phone, the sparklingly oddball first production in Profile Theatre’s season of plays by Sarah Ruhl. This slightly absurdist, slightly comic-book, highly whimsical, and emotionally serious play takes a headlong leap down the rabbit hole, and Millican makes an ideal, engagingly sympathetic contemporary Alice, balancing the role’s cartoon and realist aspects to create a captivating wonderland.

Ruhl’s play seems simple but requires a tough-to-pull-off balance between reality and fantasy. Millican gives director Adriana Baer’s production its robustly beating heart by keeping one foot in an increasingly strange reality and one in an increasingly logical absurdism.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone is partly about the ever-presence of technological communication in our lives, and the ways in which that both connects us and isolates us from deeper forms of connection. Ruhl takes the observation beyond pop sociology, into an exploration of how human beings adhere to one another. And Jean is her curiously hopeful Stanley, relentlessly and mystifyingly following Livingstone’s trail. Each little white lie that Millican tells, each hesitation and twitch of disbelief, each plunge into the comically unknown, is an affirmation of the cosmic “yes” that guide’s Jean’s steps. At one point on her journey beyond the stars and back she speaks an odd little prayer of purpose:

Help me, God.

Help me to comfort his loved ones.

Help me to help the memory of Gordon

live on in the minds and hearts of his loved ones.

I only knew him for a short, time, God.

But I think that I loved him, in a way.

Dear God. I hope that Gordon is peaceful now.

Looked at logically, the play’s events make no sense. Looked at as a modest young woman’s journey though the dizzying lessons of love, the play seems crystal clear. Jean, a bit of a technophobe at the play’s beginning, uses the dead man’s cell phone as a kind of talisman to transform her life and several others along the way.

This sweet small show also benefits from its several expertly turned supporting performances. Don Kenneth Mason is highly amusing in two very different roles, as the dead man Gordon (whom we meet in the afterworld) and Gordon’s milder, embossed-paper-besotted brother Dwight. Patricia Hunter gives a sharply comic, Maggie Smith-tinted performance as Gordon’s regally curdling mother, and Dana Green sketches two brilliantly overstated characters, as Gordon’s mysterious mistress and his bored, resentful, ice-skating wife. The ensemble of Jonathan Hernandez, Shawna Holt, and Jake Turner, operating partly as stagehands to keep the scenes rolling smoothly, add their own touches of whimsy.

The show’s design is understated but highly effective, a model of economy. Rachel Finn designed the costumes, mobile set, and props (including a nifty toy airliner that jets across the stage to an assignation in South Africa), and Carl Faber’s lighting design is active and playful. Shareth Patel’s sound design plays a significant role, leaping forward with the action and adding touches of light melodrama to shift the mood.

Cell Phone, which continues through Feb. 15, is a terrific kickoff to Profile’s Ruhl season, which will also include In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play; Passion Play; and Orlando (an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel). In the Next Room was produced fairly recently by Triangle Productions and is worth another look. The season will also include four staged readings: Ruhl’s adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters; Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists; Erin Bregman’s The Lady Onstage; and Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy.

 

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