When a play’s title — “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” at Axial Theater — is a dead giveaway to what otherwise could have been a big reveal in the opening scene (that guy sitting slumped in his cafe chair whose phone keeps ringing didn’t doze off, he died off ), you have to wonder what the writer has in mind.
Author Sarah Ruhl has a lot on her fertile mind as she goes about creating her own rules. She is one of today’s most celebrated, cerebral dramatists, lavished with awards and critical praise, a finalist for the Pulitzer and Tony awards, and a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” grant. In other words, unlike the unfortunate man we espy at the play’s outset, it’s safe to say she’s no slouch.
Neither is the high-minded director, Rachel Jones, who selected this work for the prestigious Axial Theatre, where it runs through Sunday, May 17 (Click here for more info). Axial is one of an elite group of Hudson Valley theater companies that consistently mount top-quality, tightly disciplined productions that give audiences more than their money’s worth.
The theatrical expertise and unerring artistic sensibility for which Ms. Jones is known proves a fine match for the sophistication of craft and ideas that inform Ms. Ruhl’s writing. The show’s brisk and bright pacing never flags.
The excellent ensemble of actors could not be in better hands than having Ms. Jones make sure their instruments — as the actor’s collective assets are called — stay finely tuned throughout.
I’m lucky to have trained under Rachel Jones, as well as with Axial impresario Howard Meyer, whose eponymous acting program is under the same roof as Axial (http://www.hmacting.org/).
Ms. Jones also teaches acting at her own studio in Connecticut called The Actors Circle (http://www.the-actors-circle.com/.)
Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn famously eschewed big ideas in his movies with the dismissive quote, “If you’ve got a message, send a telegram.”
Ms. Ruhl, a blazingly original talent, exercises her own version of that here, which in my words is “When you want to send a message, deliver it as satire.” Her incisive barbs can be knowing and cutting, yet also be delivered sweet, more peachy than preachy.
As the titular character’s titular digital device rings insistently in Scene 1, a young woman, Jean (Siobhan McKinley), at a nearby table eventually answers it. In short order, she awakes to the reality that its owner, Gordon Gottlieb (Michael E. Boyle, Jr.), has ceased living.
Jean is about to start living a self-made fantasy, as she makes the rounds of Gordon’s relatives — and a mystery femme fatale — all the while carrying forth the conceit that she was intimate with Gordon as a co-worker.
Ironically, Gordon’s opening demise is the last fact we can be certain about. Reality is almost an inconvenience the author toys with like a handful of Silly Putty (for those who remember that space-age substance).
The peripatetic Jean concocts an alternate life based entirely on information channeled through an inanimate yet powerfully animating object: a cell phone.
It’s the author’s way of saying we have come to empower mobile devices as a godhead that shapes our lives in ways that virtually reorder what it means to be human.
What we have here is a consideration of the cell as our central nervous system, a metaphor that rings all too true.
As Jean, Ms. McKinley affects a fetching air of abandon, darting about the sparsely propped venue — a large room in St. John’s Episcopal Church in Pleasantville — as if she’s on a scavenger hunt, which in fact she is, collecting bits of Gordon’s existence to piece together a portrait of the man who has become her obsession even though she only met his corpse.
Whomever said dead men tell no tales never counted on the resourcefulness of Sarah Ruhl.
Playing dead in the person of Gordon Gottlieb is the expertly cast Michael E. Boyle, Jr. In his reawakening, as it were, at the start of Act II, when he recounts for us the minutes leading to his untimely but storied passing, Mr. Boyle ably acts the rakish raconteur, plying us with his worldview and his gastronomical tastes in sushi and soup.
Turns out, we also learn, he sells human organs on the black market. For someone who knows he’s dead, Boyle-as-Gottlieb has sangfroid — and energy — to spare.
Leaving a surly, sexy stamp on the proceedings is Susan Ward (member of Actors Equity) as The Other Woman. Ms. Ward’s voguing entrance would make Madonna proud.
She’s dolled up in form-fitting dress, spike heels, flowing tresses, all accented by an exotic inflection that helps laugh lines land with panache, as the audience attests. Through her, Ms. Ruhl pays homage to the especial carriage and cachet — fairly or not — afforded women of beauty.
As Ms. Ward’s character says, creatures of attraction have an obligation to fulfill their physical destiny by not only looking, but acting, beautiful.
Strong supporting performances are turned in by Nancy Intrator as Hermia, Gordon’s widow, and Duane Rutter as Gordon’s brother Dwight, so christened because his mother felt sorry for the lonely name. At some performances, Hermia is played by Lori Franzese and Jean by Kristen Odell.
The staging is very smooth, and well choreographed. During a sequence when Gordon finds himself in a literal Hell of a spot, performers float by in slow motion twirling umbrellas in a dreamy dance of death.
In her program note, director Jones explains that American artist Edward Hopper — in whose paintings umbrellas recur — thematically influenced Ms. Ruhl’s play. His style also is reflected in the costumes designed by Oona Tibbetts, who assigned each actor a Hopper painting to help flesh out the character.
One of the lessons culled from Ruhl’s Rules of Evolution is that cell phones can disconnect us from emotional intelligence — nobody questions the dubious nature of Jean’s fabrications — as easily as they connect us logistically.
As Gordon’s dowager mother, performed indelibly with naughty haughtiness by Gail Greenstein, reasons while grieving her loss, “When no one ever calls him again, he will be truly gone.” That’s golden Ruhl, compactly funny and sad in the same breath.
As Mrs. G eulogizes dear, departed Gordon, we are blind-sided by hearing Rodgers & Hammerstein’s secular spiritual from Carousel, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
“That’s right,” says Mrs. Gottlieb. “Because you’ll always have a machine in your pants that might ring.”
Hers clearly is the primary voice of the author, questioning and condemning our surrender to the soul-stealing disruption wrought by technology. “Is there no privacy?” she muses. “Is there no dignity?”
Ms. Ruhl mixes punchy one-liners with sobering epigrams that underline our mixed-up values in a world forever flattened by the miraculous mobile device, the one vice we unashamedly talk to death.
Axial Theater presents “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Rachel Jones. Co-Artistic Directors, Howard Meyer & Francesco Campari. Managing Director, Jaki Silver. David Hoffman, Production Manager. Andre Sguerra, Technical Director. Oona Tibbetts, Costume Designer. Christina Watanabe, Lighting Designer. Jill Woodward, Stage Manager and Props Designer. Igor Yachmenov, Sound Designer. Eric Zoback, Scenic Designer.
Media and marketing specialist Bruce Apar, also known by his nom de blog Bruce The Blog, owns and operates APAR All-Media, a Hudson Valley agency for advertising, content, marketing and public relations. Follow APAR All-Media’s Hudson Valley WXYZ on Facebook and Twitter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.