Review: Dead Man's Cell Phone ~ theatre notes

Monday, July 05, 2010

Review: Dead Man's Cell Phone

An overdose of whimsy can bring out the worst in a girl. Take the obsidian Dorothy Parker, celebrated critic of the Algonquin Round Table set in 1920s New York. Whimsy could set her off like nobody’s business.

She famously wrote an excoriating review of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, in which she complained that “Tonstant weader fwowed up”. Milne also wrote some deservedly forgotten plays, one of which Parker claimed forced her to shoot herself in the theatre.

I have read some of Milne’s plays, and it’s not difficult to see Parker’s point: at least one can put a book down. Although written for adults, they are steeped in a kind of twilit cutesiness that gives the impression they were written in scented violet ink.

The question of the day is whether US playwright Sarah Ruhl is the A.A. Milne of our time. She has made her reputation writing plays that critics have labelled “magical realism”, after the surreality of writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The Clean House (2004) was produced by the MTC four years ago. Although this play teetered uncomfortably on the edge of twee, I remember it as an unambitious but enjoyable piece of comic theatre about the relationships between three very different women.

Her 2007 play Dead Man’s Cell Phone moves beyond the domestic realm, supposedly creating a metaphysical parable about death, dying and love. It’s an infantile exploration of these questions, richly larded with, yes, whimsy, and bonus op-ed-style homilies about 21st century digital life.

Lonely single Jean (Lisa McCune) is eating soup in a cafĂ© when another customer’s phone begins to ring. When he doesn’t pick up she answers it herself, only finding out afterwards that Gordon has died in his chair.

By stealing his mobile phone, Jean begins to appropriate Gordon’s life, becoming a cuckoo in his predictably quirky family and weaving a pink-hazed fantasy around a man who turns out to be more than morally dubious.

It being this kind of play, all Jean’s well-intentioned lies turn out for the best. The good news is that death is quite nice, really.

Peter Evans’s production is better than this play deserves, although the Edward Hopper-inspired set is mysteriously claustrophobic and muddy. The textured green walls absorb the light, making it impossible to recreate Hopper's haunting, empty luminosity.

As with all recent MTC productions, it’s very well cast. It features some excellent clowning, especially from Sarah Sutherland, who plays Gordon’s ex-wife. This can’t make up for the inanity of the writing, but at least I could leave the gun in my handbag.

Picture: Sarah Sutherland and Lisa McCune in Dead Man's Cell Phone. Photo: Jeff Busby

This review almost appears in today's Australian.

Dead Man's Cell Phone, by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Peter Evans. Melbourne Theatre Company. Sumner Theatre, MTC Theatre, Melbourne. July 1. Until August 7.


George Hunka said...

Garcia Marquez may have been the worst thing to happen to American drama since Our Town: invoking "magic realism" (and the way most of these dramatists use it, this is an oxymoron) forgives all sorts of frippery and tweeness. It doesn't make the dramatist Gabriel Garcia Marquez; it doesn't even make him Peter Gabriel.

Mother of Invention Acting School said...

Alison, I bought a copy of this play to read a few months ago, but threw it down in disgust after having read three or four scenes. "Infantile" is one word, "candy-assed" is another.

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DS said...

It seemed a little ironic to me that I saw this play the same day that The Age published a piece asking why there weren't more Australian plays on our stages. I'd booked my ticket to Dead Man's Cell Phone with high expectations, having read nothing but great things about Ruhl's writing in US sources. And while my expectations were lowered somewhat by the local reviews, I was still expecting something much better than what was on offer - a disjointed, superficial and, frankly, rather boring play saved only by some good performances. What kept going through my mind was, Surely there are Australian writers coming up with better plays than this; writers with a strong indie reputation who, for some unknown reason, can't get a play on a main stage. If they can program plays by OS playwrights who aren't household names here (eg JT Rogers and Ruhl herself) then why can't they program plays by people like Ian Wilding, Tom Holloway, Patricia Cornelius etc etc. If main-stage companies are going to take risks in their programming, then why aren't they taking risks (and we're only talking about one or two a season) on local playwrights. I'd bet any money they can come up with something a whole lot better than Dead Man's Cell Phone.

Geoffrey said...

I agree with you whole-heartedly DS. This was a shocker. I find you can actually forgive a lot if it ends well, but this just collapsed. Quite possibly, the reinvigoration of Melbourne's 'indie' scene over recent years is now holding the mainstage companies to account. Hopefully, one day soon, someone will start to tinker with the formula and we might start to get some of the adventurousness that is the hallmark of companies like the State Theatre Company of South Australia – whose productions I have flown over to see.

Bill Tucker said...

The biggest problem is that writers don't understand a mass or general audience and the difference between that and a few perfromances in the beckett or the tower room. Once you get past sales of 3 or 4 thousand tickets you are beyond the small group of devotees who are actually interested in the debates about theatre as an artform and you are entering an audience that is more concerned with the content or subject matter, or entertainment value. We have some very interesting voices in Melbourne but very few who can grip a large crowd for two hours. And this is not just an issue here. The fact that Sarah Ruhl has done so well shows how desperately scarce strong, commercially viable work is. She's been nominated for a a Pulitzer prize for what even the kindest critics could only descibe as serviceable work. When you consider Neil Simon didn't get that prize until Lost in Yonkers and after such massive hits as The Odd Couple, Barefoot in The Park etc you see the desert we're living in. In my view this syndrome is exaccerbated by a critical community who generally see theatre as a religion but not a business and who undervalue strong commercial work, or think it's easy to write a good play. Young writers tend to write for the immediate feedback of indie producers, art producers and peers and critics and tend to stay in that small pool. But the way to make a living (royalties) is to get into 500 seaters or more and run for a long time - where your peers are irrelevant and the public decides. It's at about this time in a debate that people point to the imagined subsidised paradise of Europe that values artistic quality over commercial viability. Balance is the answer. Europe has no commercially viable playwrights who can survive without funding - none, apart from Reza. And in my opinion this makes their work artistically interesting but socially predictable, comfortably left of centre, poetic but not dramatic, beautiful but not charming. If the government is the only producer, however benevolant that government might be, you have a form of censorship as deadening as the American popcorn theatres. Writers need to think big and break out of comfortable enclaves and speak to people about real things that affect us all every day. If they do that the public will listen.

Adam said...

Sarah Ruhl is, simply put, the best American playwright at the moment. Dead Man's Cell Phone is not her best, to be sure, but The Clean House and her recent Passion Play are two of the best plays to grace the stage in the last decade.