ALBANY — “Sarah Ruhl is forever vital in her lyrical and biting takes on how we behave." — The Washington Post.
That's a spot-on assessment of Ruhl’s 2007 play "Dead Man's Cell Phone."
And director Katie Weinberg might be just the person to bring more of Ruhl’s work to the Capital Region, so extraordinary is this Albany Civic Theater production.
As I said in my review of Ruhl’s “The Clean House” at Williamstown last summer, Ruhl comfortably traffics in black comedy and magical realism. We find ourselves laughing at topics we shouldn’t. We move fluidly from the real world to the spirit world and back.
The story: Jean (Ellen Cribbs) is eating alone in a café when the cellphone of the man (Evan Jones) at a nearby table rings. Insistently. Repeatedly. He doesn’t answer.
When she attempts to speak to him, she discovers that he is sitting there, dead. What to do? Call 911, but then?
Keep the phone. And answer the calls for Gordon Gottlieb? Why not?
Jean thus steps into Gordon’s world, where she meets his mistress (Meigg Jupin), his mother (Terri Storti), his widow (Erica Buda-Doran) and his brother Dwight (Alex Perone). Though Jean didn’t know Gordon, she finds herself actively participating in his life/death, and, in the process, doing something about her own life.
Peppered with thought-provoking observations, the script is funny and moving.
Let’s start with the moving. When Jean attempts to wake Gordon at the restaurant, there’s an instant when the awfulness — and finality — of death is apparent. Cribbs creates this moment with stunning power, and it’s only the beginning of a three-dimensional performance that carries the show.
And Cribbs’ scenes with Perone are poignant, as Jean and Dwight, two 30-somethings, experience the teen-aged joy of finding love and not knowing exactly what to do with it. Perone does abashed quite sweetly.
The humor? Kudos to Jupin, who plays the mistress with a British accent and a character called The Stranger with a Russian accent, both in convincing fashion. Buda-Doran is touching as the uptight Hermia in Act 1 and hysterical as the besotted Hermia in Act 2. Storti’s patrician voice could melt butter — such a pleasure to hear this actress speak! — but Mrs. Gottlieb’s wry comments would quickly scorch it. (To Jean: “You’re very comforting -- like a small casserole.”) And Evan Jones brings to life the dead man in a jaw-dropping monologue at the top of Act 2 and an otherworldly confrontation with Jean a bit later.
The performers are supported by a tech crew at the top of its game, with a special nod to the production coordination of Joanne Peal, the sound design/execution of Barry Streifert, and Adam M. Coons’ set that allows for quick shifts from one locale to the next.
A line from the play: “If your phone is on, you’re supposed to be there, but when everyone has their cellphone on, no one is there.” Ruhl may have started with this idea, but her vivid imagination brings up many existential questions.
Answers? They’re part of the conversation on the car ride home.
It's a stimulating night in the theater.
'Dead Man’s Cell Phone'
WHERE: Albany Civic Theater, 235 Second Ave., Albany
WHEN: Through Nov. 19
HOW MUCH: Adults, $18; students, $10
MORE INFO: 518-462-1297 or albanycivicitheater.org