I would die without my phone. All of us who walk with the world in our pocket, who depend on the information, organization and connection it provides us, have thought about this at some point. These machines have become not only the conduit through which we live our lives, but to some extent our own lives.
But what happens if you die and your phone is still alive?
This question is the main note in Sarah Ruhl, dead man’s cell phone, now on the Alley stage. It’s a fantastic perfume extravaganza (directed by Brandon Weinbrenner) whose middle and base notes dry down into something far less tech-obsessed, revealing distinctly human desires for memory and belonging.
Jean (Elizabeth Bunch) is sitting in a cafe minding her own business when she is distracted by the incessant ringing of a cell phone on a nearby table. Paying closer attention, Jean realizes that the phone belongs to a well-dressed man, sitting up straight and looking directly at her. Still, she doesn’t respond. Further inspection reveals that the man’s name is Gordon (Chris Hutchinson) and that he is quite dead.
“When the phone rings, you have to answer it,” Jean will say several times during the show. Strange for a woman who has resisted getting a phone herself, wanting to avoid “being there” all the time. Preferring silence to the disclosure of privacy, these often overheard public conversations give rise.
Still, something compels her to respond. And again. She vowing to keep doing it until the day he dies, promising love and loyalty to this man she never knew.
Not surprisingly, Ruhl makes Jean an employee of the Holocaust Museum, dealing with the tragic memory of those past. Unlike her job, here Jean gets to deliver sad news firsthand, and through distortion of the truth and clever collusion, she creates meaningful memories for those who mourn.
Or, to put it bluntly, Jean is lying. Ruhl’s oeuvre can sell heady subject matter, but comedy is the delivery method here. As such, whether she takes calls and/or meets later with Gordon’s mistress (Melissa Pritchett), mother (Todd Waite), wife (Michelle Elaine), and brother (Christopher Salazar), Jean has a plan. . To make it seem like Gordon’s last thoughts were fond and kind memories of every person she meets.
Give them what they want to hear and make them feel good in the process. Even if it is morally questionable. It’s a major ethical dilemma that Ruhl throws at us once he reveals how Gordon made a living and how little he thought of anyone other than himself.
Does a bad man deserve to be well remembered? Does his family, knowing what he did, deserve to feel loved by him? Jean becomes so obsessed with guarding Gordon’s memory, and the connection she gains through control of her phone, that the lines between what she wants and how she does it are blurred by Gordon’s nefarious methods in the profession. her.
The truth is that there is not much plot here to work with. Most of what Ruhl gives us is setting, situation, or parody. Which is somewhat difficult to translate gracefully for Alley’s audience, more familiar with direct storytelling.
Wisely, there is director Winebrenner at the helm, used to doing comedy with a hint of serious work for the company. In his efforts with Stephen Karam, The humansIn the 2019 season, Winebrenner tap-danced fear and disappointment in the show’s comedy ballroom. Here, he sweetly marries old-school yuks with Ruhl’s more surreal kind of humor to keep things universally palatable.
Exhausted as some of us may be watching Todd Waite in drag playing to the rafters, there’s no doubt that audiences love it. Decked out in multiple monochromatic silk and jewel-toned crepe ensembles, Waite struts with Ruhl’s caustic lines and just enough sass to make people laugh…that is if they’re craving that kind of humor.
But it’s the rest of the cast that really do the job justice, most deftly bowing into the surreal circumstances Ruhl places them in. Two performances in particular straddle the sweet spot of humor and Ruhl’s concise melting pot of cleverly poignant observations.
Can we all agree that Chris Hutchinson is more godlike when he plays horrible men? It’s not a spoiler to say that Gordon the dead man gets his moment to shine on this show. Opening the second act in the style of stand-up comedy, Hutchinson introduces Gordon’s flowing monologue with bull’s-eye and hilarious idiocy.
Spitting opinions on everything from how sushi should be eaten (no soy sauce, pagans) to the zombie effect of public transportation (no soul can keep up with that speed), Gordon unleashes a wonderfully funny dark tirade that cuts through everything in its time.
Somebody please give this actor a caustic one-man show to sink his teeth into.
Less abrasive but no less comically unexpected is Michelle Elaine as Gordon’s wife, Hermia. Specifically, when the drink gets the better of her and she confesses how she kept the temperature in her bedroom with her husband for all those years. It may be the funniest, most fluid drunken scene we’ve seen in a long time, with Elaine perfectly balancing physical humor with Ruhl’s devastatingly biting dialogue.
While not a resident actress, Elaine has appeared several times this season in Alley productions, a trend that is expected to continue.
If there’s another stellar twist to this show, it’s Michael Locher’s set design, as remarkable for what it is as for what it isn’t.
We’ve given a pass to the stagnant (and often problematic) industrial-looking two-tier set Alley has been working on all season, a cost-saving move after being closed for two years. But hallelujah, that design is gone and instead we have a crisp new set to consider.
Locher here offers us an ensemble dominated by mostly white-on-white modern forms, meant to evoke everything from the cafe where Gordon dies to his mother’s formal dining room and an otherworldly setting.
As cold as it seems at first, the design grows on us as we realize its function and see it punctuated by a serene and unassuming evocation.
What other set design could Weinbrenner choreograph a confident, but overlong cell phone conversation umbrella dance (a nod to Ruhl’s essay writing) and make it look like it fits right in? The blank canvas allows some of the show’s most flourishing attempts to work to the best of their ability.
As the show closes, we’re not necessarily sure if what we’ve seen is a stage play or a collection of musings wrapped in a surreal story. Anyone familiar with Ruhl’s writing knows that this can often be the case.
But we have laughed. Hopefully, we have thought. Certainly, we have been gifted with some excellent performances. And perhaps most interestingly, we’ve seen Alley go for something a little out of the ordinary for her main space setting.
And isn’t it worth turning up and turning off your own cell phone?
Dead Man’s Cell Phone continues through May 8 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For more information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $28-$74.