Sunday, October 31, 2010

Dead on

(Sarah Ruhl's "Dead Man's Cell Phone" is playing at Dobama Theatre. Photo by Steve Wagner.)
In spite of its mock-icy film noirish moniker, Dobama Theatre's production of Sarah Ruhl's "Dead Man's Cell Phone" is, in its own macabre and nutty way, the theatrical equivalent of a revivifying Bahama romp. While the latest crop of plays are busy embalming movies, yodeling Nihilism and treating obscurity as profundity, this 2008 play basks in the balmy breezes of a nascent, whimsical intellect. Here is reassuring hope that all terrific playwrights aren't named Tony Kushner or have passed away to either Hollywood, a nursing home or the great beyond.

"Dead Man's Cell Phone" is founded on a stunning premise. We are in a cafe, where the continuous ringing of a cell phone enrages the woman at the next table. Within minutes, she discovers that the fellow has kicked the bucket. She appropriates his phone and, in the manner of an overaged girl scout, politely decides to answer the calls and pick up the pieces of the dead's man life. Running with this unlikely beginning, Ruhl creates a scary and ultimately hopeful fairy tale, with the phone acting as surrogate magic beans to take our heroine into a swirling fantasia. At breathtaking pace, we meet the dead man's fixated mother, emotionally stunted brother, cohorts in the illegal human-organ trade, his mistress and wife, and, in a darkly scintillating climax, the dead man himself in his afterlife apartment. Since "Angels in America" captured every critical Hosannah, every play that hopes to be hip invades a Lewis Carrollinian wonderland in one way or another. Ruhl is among the few playwrights using this style who does not descend into cacaphony, but rather, reaching back to an older and happier tradition, weaves blissful possibilities of redemption and self-knowledge into her narrative.

The most delightful aspect of the evening is confirming that all of our great actors have not headed to greener pastures. As the almost catatonically introverted Jean, the ever-radiant Tracee Patterson is given ample opportunity to perform her speciality of blossoming before our eyes. Oh, those petals. The eponymous corpse is played by Joel Hammer, who once again demonstrates his firm place as the region's Fred Astaire of rage and humbug. The manical gleam in his eyes alone could power downtown Cleveland Heights. For those addicted to Turner Movie Classics, Paula Duesing is the proletariat Ethel Barrymore. Just the sound of her smoky voice gives one a euphoric buzz. Unlike most ensemble casts, there's not a weak link here, which can be attributed to Scott Miller's alert direction.

At last, a play and production that have the electrifying immediacy not to be found on any kind of screen.

"Dead Man's Cell Phone" runs through Nov. 21 at Dobama Theatre. For tickets, call 216-932-3396.

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