Dead Man's Cell Phone is a tantalizing play: original, unpredictable, poignantly lyrical at times and then suddenly obscene. But I don't think it really works. The major themes of the play — the ubiquity of cell phones, the attempt to deceive an egocentric dead man's loved ones into thinking he truly cared for them, the existence of a particularly grisly niche of the black market — don't ever really coalesce over the course of two acts, and the love story that's so important in act two exists almost independently of everything around it. Because author Sarah Ruhl is inspired and imaginative, there's still a magic to the comedy — the same magic that I found in her Eurydice at Stageworks recently and in The Clean House at Sarasota's Banyan Theatre before that. But the unspoken claim of a play like Cell Phone is that it's going to show us how a few apparently unconnected threads can be wound together to create something strong, strange and beautiful — and that never really happens here. Not even the fine production currently at Jobsite Theater can give these disparate motifs any real unity.
The play starts with a woman named Jean trying to enjoy a visit to a café when the cell phone of a fellow diner starts ringing. Eventually, Jean rises from her table and answers the phone — only to discover that its owner Gordon is dead, and that she's wandered into the middle of his not-very-pretty story. There she meets his mercurial mother, his damaged widow, one of his coy mistresses and one of his crooked business associates — and she discovers that the cadaver pretty much messed up all his relationships and left a lot of pain before he passed over.
So she lies: she tells one that her name was on his lips when he died, and another that he was writing her a love letter just before he keeled over. She goes to church with the cadaver's mother and to South Africa to meet one of his business contacts; and she falls in love with the corpse's brother, a decent, self-deprecating sort who shares none of his sibling's moral turpitude. As these developments occur, the dead guy's cell phone intermittently rings, and Jean repeatedly insists on answering it. But to do so may be dangerous — Gordon's business was literally deadly — and there are possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars still in play.
Now the good news is, this is a Sarah Ruhl play — meaning that, failings or not, you can still expect humor, whimsical plot developments, sudden insights and an all-too-justifiable fixation on death. There are several coups-de-theâtre: a scene in hell, a love duet amidst falling stationery, a soundscape (a little too thin, though) of never-dying cell phone calls, and enough intelligent dialogue to make you believe again in literate drama. And the Jobsite team delivers fully with every performance. As Jean, Meg Heimstead is once again impeccable, coming across as stubborn but naïve, lovingly earnest (even in a world of emotional card sharks), committed to spreading goodwill to exactly the degree that Gordon was spreading distress. As Gordon's mother, the wonderful Elizabeth Fendrick (welcome back) is narcissistic, peevish, elegant and haughty, and as his wife, Katrina Stevenson suggests a whole world of self-serving self-pity in just a few minutes. Then there's Michael C. McGreevy, who gives perhaps his best performance ever as love interest Dwight, a man without an ounce of malice who's clearly Jean's fated other half. Summer Bohnenkamp-Jenkins is sultry and mysterious in two anonymous roles, and Steve Garland, as dead man Gordon, is extraordinary (in ways it's best left for the audience to discover). David M. Jenkins directs capably, though a much more elaborate production would have been in keeping, I think, with Ruhl's aesthetic. Brian Smallheer's not-very-interesting set is more or less a bare stage with various pieces of furniture, some painted red. A projection screen along the back wall is really too small to do the job of convincing us we've changed locales.
Still, we're in luck. Sarah Ruhl is the most exciting thing to happen to American theater in years, and even her lesser work is worthy of attention. Dead Man's Cell Phone is no masterpiece, but it's far more interesting than the work of many longer-established playwrights. I'm delighted that Jobsite brought it to Tampa. And I'm hoping for more.