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Call of the Wild

Mildred's Umbrella presents the surrealistic Dead Man's Cell Phone.

In Dead Man's Cell Phone, a woman at a cafe rises to answer a cell phone when its owner does not, only to discover that the man has died. She answers the phone anyway, and thus becomes embroiled with his family and his business.

Playwright Sarah Ruhl has the talent to seize upon a minor incident, as here, and explore its implications, much like tugging at a loose thread on a garment and suddenly seeing it unravel. This is not Theatre of the Absurd, in which worlds are created that have their own, different logic. It is instead cinematic, and uses shorthand to create first one moment, then another, much like improv. Ruhl deliberately eschews the conventions of motivation and plausibility, to create instead a surrealistic landscape, scenes flowing across the retina of the mind.

Jennifer Decker plays Jean, whose impulsive gesture in answering the phone is the catalyst for the events that ensue. Though looking a bit young for a middle-aged role, she gives an effective, understated performance, anchoring the play and providing a lifeline to reality. Yet it is a controlled performance, lacking the spontaneity one would expect from the inventive meddler Jean is. We meet her at the cafe as the phone rings, and the opening scene is dramatic, humorous, and rings true.

The dead man and the meddler: Mark ­Roberts and Jennifer Decker.
Courtesy of Mildred's Umbrella
The dead man and the meddler: Mark ­Roberts and Jennifer Decker.

We meet the family of the dead man, Gordon, at his funeral service: his mother Mrs. Gottlieb, brother Dwight and wife Hermia. This scene should be hilarious, as cell phones interrupt the service, but Julie Oliver as Mrs. Gottlieb fails to rise to the occasion. She seems involved with her performance rather than with the situation. Since Ruhl makes her own rules, excellence in performers is essential to carry us with her. We meet the family again at a lugubrious dinner "party," where long silences indicate the characters have little to say to each other, but also compel us to witness tedium. Ruhl's shorthand could have been used here, to good effect.

Jon Harvey plays Dwight as a soft mama's boy, as Ruhl intends, and finds the character's sweetness and lack of strength. While Jean is badly in need of a makeover and a new wardrobe, she and Dwight unexpectedly — and suddenly — find "rapport"; I found myself thinking: "She can do better." Elizabeth Seabolt-Esparza plays Hermia and is given little to do but look sullen in Act I. However, in Act II, she plays a quasi-drunk scene effectively, and we see a coherent character emerge. She has enough sex appeal that we can see why Gordon married her.

Act II takes off like a skyrocket, as the dead man returns to fill us in on what happened prior to his death. This monologue is brilliant, and shows that Ruhl can create a vivid character and deliver valid motivation, in deliciously ironic terms, when she cares to. Mark Roberts as Gordon could not be better, and we learn to admire Gordon's chutzpah, greed and ability to rationalize, even as we learn the details of his unsavory business enterprise. Finally, the stage comes to vibrant life.

Candyce Prince is excellent as The Other Woman, surviving the handicap of a 20-inch-long cigarette holder, and in another cameo role wears the raincoat of a film noir villain well. There is more, much more, an unlikely scene occurring near a stack of luggage, an excursion into the ether of an afterlife, and a visually powerful, well-choreographed, poetic scene as masked pedestrians parade, aimlessly and intensely, with umbrellas (an appropriate homage to Magritte, and also Mildred). Along with Gordon's monologue, we are here presented with real theater.

The set is simple, with the many scene changes handled as well as possible, though they necessarily interrupt the building of tension. The costumes by Claremarie Verheyen are strange indeed — Mrs. Gottlieb goes from the funeral's deep black to an orange dress and red pumps, and Jean's skirt resembles the tablecloths in the cafe, a drab floral green. Jean is dressed as a frump, and apparently has no change of clothes. These may be jokes, intended to be witty character definitions, but, if so, they missed the mark.

Sliding past the severe implausibility of events in the script, I searched for the meat, or the emotional power, or the intellectual depth, but they eluded me. There are comments in the dialogue that could be taken as significant, but they are not dramatized. The play is a pastiche that fails both as a love story and as a fable. It may be that different casting, higher-energy acting and a turntable that permitted a slicker production could make this play more successful. Or perhaps we then just wouldn't notice its defects. Ruhl is the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Award, garnered a Tony nomination for In the Next Room and has bushel-baskets of accolades, so it is easy to see why a theater would be drawn to her work. Mildred's Umbrella, perhaps the most consistently innovative troupe in the Houston area, is to be commended for presenting an unusual though flawed work by this acclaimed playwright.

 
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