Dead Man's Cell Phone Rings, and Strangeness Follows

The setup:

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 becomes embroiled with his family and his business.

The execution:

Playwright Sarah Ruhl has the talent to seize upon a minor incident, a nonevent, and explore its implications, much like tugging at a loose thread on a garment and suddenly seeing it unravel. Ruhl eschews the conventions of motivation and plausibility, choosing to create instead a surrealistic landscape, scenes flowing across the retina of the mind. The program notes from director Rob Kimbro suggest "a willing suspension of disbelief," and this advice is wise indeed.

Jennifer Decker plays Jean, whose impulsive gesture in answering the phone is the catalyst for events. 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. We meet the family of the dead man, Gordon, at his funeral service: his mother, Mrs. Gottlieb; his brother, Dwight; and his 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.

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. Dwight is soft and under his mama's thumb, and Jon Harvey finds the character's sweetness and lack of strength. As Jean and Dwight unexpectedly find rapport, I kept thinking: She can do better. Elizabeth Seabolt-Esparza plays the wife Hermia, and is given little to do but look sullen in Act I, but in Act II she plays a quasi-drunk scene effectively, and a coherent character emerges; she has enough sex appeal that we see why Gordon married her.

Act II takes off like a skyrocket, as the dead man returns to fill us in on events leading up to his death. This lengthy monologue is brilliant, and documents that Ruhl can etch a vivid character, and deliver valid motivation, in deliciously ironic terms - when she cares to do so. 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. The stage comes to vibrant life.

There is more, an unlikely film noir scene taking place next to a pile of luggage, an excursion into the ether of an afterlife, a tying together of a sort, and a visually powerful, well-choreographed scene as masked pedestrians with umbrellas parade, aimlessly but intensely. Director Rob Kimbro has not been able to create the energy Act I needs, but does keep things moving in Act II.

The costume choices are strange indeed, red pumps follow funeral black, Jean's outfit is frumpy and seems to be the only clothes she owns - these may be intended to be amusing. Mildred's Umbrella, perhaps the most consistently innovative troupe in the Houston area, is to be commended for presenting an original though flawed work by an acclaimed playwright.

The verdict:

A play with diverse, eclectic elements chronicles how an impulsive gesture can lead to extraordinary life changes. Ironic humor and some dramatic moments make this a curiosity to be savored by those open to the unusual.

Dead Man's Cell Phone continues through April 7 at Studio 101, Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street. For information or ticketing, call 832-463-0409 or contact info@mildredsumbrella.com.

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