DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE @ OSF not up to SF Playhouse staging

Jean (Sarah Agnew) tries to determine if Jordan (Jeffery King) is alive. Photo by Jenny Graham.

OREGON SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL (OSF); P.O. Box 158, 15 South Pioneer Street, Ashland, OR 97520. 541-482-2111, 541-482-0446 fax, 541-482-4331 box office;

DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Christopher Liam Moore. February 19 -June 19

A recent headline,” RUHL RULES THE BAY AREA WITH DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE” promoted Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone at the SF Playhouse as a must see production. It came hot on the heels of her Broadway bound smash hit In the Next Room( or the Vibrator Play) at the Berkeley Rep. TheatreWorks mounted her Pulitzer Prize nominated A Clean House, and Berkeley Rep had an extended run with Eurydice. The Clean House was fantasy and Eurydice is mythological. We get to expect well-written plays with quirky plots and unexpected twists from this multi-talented, prize-winning playwright. Her text does not disappoint in Dead Man’s Cell Phone but OSF has mounted a dizzying staging that to this reviewer is “over produced” detracting from the cutting, satirical dialog emphasizing the intrusive use of cell phones.

In this dark comedy, Ruhl melds the overly intrusive, ubiquitous cell phone with a plot dealing with illegal sales of human donor organs. I did mention that she has a quirky bent. It all begins with mousey, unmarried 39 year old Jean (an excellent Sarah Agnew) enjoying a bowl of soup in a café with the incessant ringing of a cell phone belonging to a dead man, Gordon (Jeffery King). What is a lonely girl to do? Beside that, does Ruhl suggest that the phone has a soul and begs to be answered? Yes, that is sort of the question Ruhl satirizes as Jean picks up the phone, answers it, starting a series conversations, packed with well meaning lies as she navigates Gordon’s bizarre world.

Ruhl covers three of the most egregious intrusions of cell phones starting with the café scene. Second, is the funeral ceremony when Gordon’s wacky mother (played to perfection by Catherine E. Coulson) ends her bizarre eulogy selecting the music “You Never Walk Alone”, as “the” cell phone rings and states, “That’s right. Because you’ll always have a machine in your pocket that might ring!” Finally yet importantly (horrors), just as Jean and Gordon’s younger brother Dwight (Brent Hinkley) are “bonding” in a semi-love scene the phone rings. Jean who has never owned a cell phone is unaware of the cardinal rule: Never answer the phone while making love or having sex.

Initially written without intermission, Ruhl for a second act opens with a monolog for the not so dear departed Gordon. It may be the fault of the director but Jeffery King’s histrionics would earn him the “ham of the year award.” The screwball sarcasm, innuendo and innovative truisms are buried in strange light effects (Lonnie Alcaraz) and sound design (Paul James Prendergast). The quirks in the plot come fast and furious in act two as Jean meets up with Gordon in limbo and postulates that all the cell phone talk is just hanging around “out there” for eternity. Jean meets with Gordon’s underappreciated wife Hermia (a waste of Terri McMahon who was a sensation in last year’s On the Razzle) in a disjointedly directed bar scene. Jean learns all the dastardly deeds involving Gordon and his “Other Woman” (Miriam Laube is so unintelligible she could excel as Dogberry).

Jean’s goody-goody two shoes personality kicks into high gear and she takes off to South Africa only to be unsuccessful in setting right all the terrible wrongs associated with selling body parts. (Note: It brings to mind how Steve Jobs recently got to the head of the line of people waiting for liver transplants.)

Since Sarah Ruhl was pleased with this staging, disregard this review and go to see OSF’s production.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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