Anyone who subscribes to the notion that women aren't into electronics might do well to investigate the comedies of Sarah Ruhl. Dead Man's Cell Phone, first presented off-Broadway in 2008 and now at Actor's Theatre though April 23, introduces us to a woman who is drawn into a total stranger's life by her compulsion to answer his ringing phone — over and over — after he has died. Ruhl's next work, an archeological gem called In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play, opened at Lincoln Center in 2009, excavating a connection between women and electronics dating back to the 1880s. My wife Sue and I saw that Broadway production, and it hit both our G spots.
No wonder that Actor's Theatre has already decided to anchor its 2011-12 season with Ruhl's Vibrator. Admittedly, the shock value of the upcoming September comedy will far eclipse that of the appliance currently onstage. But Ruhl's Cell Phone has the edge in geniality, imaginativeness, and pertinence — and it plays more readily to the longtime zany strengths of Actor's Theatre.
Under the direction of Anne Marie Costa, we move more emphatically into the realm of surrealism. While the off-Broadway production leaned heavily on the imagery of Edward Hopper, the superwide skies and spacious floating windows of Chip Decker's set design are straight out of the scenic vocabulary of René Magritte, double-underlined by the umbrellas and bowler hats sported by the stagehands as they transition us between scenes.
There are many as we follow Jean in tying up the loose ends of Gordon Gottleib's life. Loose strands include Gordon's disapproving mother, his unfeeling wife, and his mysterious mistress — characters we might call misogynistic creations were they penned by a man. Yet the men aren't exemplars, either. Dwight, held in contempt from the day he was born, meekly allows himself to be overshadowed by his older brother Gordon, whose career is built on highly questionable black market activities.
Jean is no less duplicitous than Gordon as she takes over his afterlife — but with better intentions, consoling the dead man's family with sugary lies (and gifts!) customized for mom, the missus, and little brother. Catherine Smith lavishes just the right amount of goofball cheeriness on Jean as she angelically administers her white lies. Too much goodness or good sense would make it hard for us to believe the trouble she takes over Gordon's family or her subsequent plunge into the dead man's illegal brokerage.
Equally well-calibrated, John C. Cunningham makes Dwight as resistible as he is sympathetic, so we can understand why Jean might drop him in a heartbeat for a spur-of-the-moment adventure in South Africa. Jean doesn't bring much of a pre-life to the table before she takes custody of Gordon's afterlife, so the bond between her and Dwight — over embossed stationery! — must be strong enough to rouse some fear-of-intimacy issues for our heroine. Just when she's getting a life, she flees it.
Jean's judgment, of course, is also suspect because of the unworthiness of the other people she duplicitously consoles. Cued by costume designer Jamey Varnadore's full-length fur stole for Mrs. Gottleib, Polly Adkins wraps a patrician cloak around her nastiness, but Allison Lamb is more ambiguous as Gordon's wife Hermia, maybe less sinned-against than sinning. Glynnis O'Donoghue injects the mysterious mistress with a cinematic femme-fatale glamour, aided by Hallie Gray's brash lighting design.
Taking his sweet time, Christian Casper comes alive as Gordon, giving Dead Man's Cell Phone an otherworldly dimension that keeps intensifying after intermission, triggering a glitzy workout for those skies. If you saw Casper as Inspector Nick Rosetti in the PAC's 2006 production of Shear Madness, you'll remember how relaxed and authoritative he was. This whole production boasts a similar luster.