Open lines

What if the dead could talk?
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  January 20, 2010

SPEAKING WITH THE ANGELS Mad Horse’s latest inquiry into the modern mind.

In our hyper-connected day and age, a woman laments in Dead Man's Cell Phone, there exist only three sanctuaries from the ringing: the theater, the church, and the toilet — and even these havens are ring-less only in principle. Everywhere else is an open zone for intercepting all manner of other people's connections, interruptions, and miscommunications. It's in this world that Jean (Denise Poirier), a nondescript woman in a café, first answers the ringing meant for the lifeless stranger at the next table, Gordon (Brent Askari), in a Sarah Ruhl comedy produced by Mad Horse Theatre Company. Director Lisa Muller-Jones, who gave us a radiant production of Ruhl's The Clean House last January, now presents a sharp, superbly cast, and lovingly staged Dead Man's Cell Phone, in which how we know and care for each other becomes a whimsical tussle between the tangible, the virtual, and the ethereal.

Ruhl's signature storytelling swings us vertiginously between humor and gravity, absurdity and realism, and often straddles both sides of the spectrum at once. The case in point is Dead Man's very premise, both ridiculous and poignant: After the first call that Jean takes on Gordon's phone, she's hooked. She keeps the phone, talks her way into acquaintance with Gordon's bereaved — his bitter and grandiose mother Harriet Gottlieb (Tootie Van Reenen), steely widow Hermia (Janice Gardner), glamorous mistress Carlotta (Kathleen Kimball), and long-eclipsed younger brother Dwight (David Currier) — and starts spinning them little white tales of Gordon's final moments.

It's not out of any ill intent that Jean deceives them with these stories, but rather a vague urge to know and sustain the life of the dead man. Jean herself is sensitive and self-effacing, and has the qualities of a vessel: She is both easily filled by others and capable of selflessly pouring herself into them. Her character is drawn naturalistically, in contrast to several highly hyperbolic others, and it is a pleasure to watch Poirier, who so often regales us in larger-than-life roles, operate on a more intimate scale. Watch the careful nuances of her face throughout the play, beginning in the very first scene, as she shifts from registering the phone's incessant ringing to registering the presence of a dead man. Jean transforms further, but early on we hear her voice most often as half of a conversation on Gordon's phone, conscientiously responding to people we can't hear.

Poirier's subtlety strikes a vivid contrast to much of the play's staging, which is colorful, stylized, and tinged with magical realism: a trio of illuminated red umbrellas in a row, sudden musical flourishes of noir-ish strings, sheets of paper raining over Jean and Dwight in a lovely, sentimental scene in a stationary store.

Many of the play's other characters are of this playfully exaggerated ethos, including Kimball's deliciously caricatured Carlotta, who shoots Jean mysterious glances in a fedora and trench coat, and Van Reenen's gloriously over-the-top matriarch Harriet Gottlieb, in black, gold, and heavy eye make-up, who belts out an outrageously comic rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone." Askari and his shady charisma are perfectly cast as the dead man, posing a great contrast to Currier's sweetly sympathetic Dwight. Gardner's coiffed Hermia is perhaps a touch too punctuated in her earlier clipped delivery, but she's excellent, both hilarious and moving once Hermia tosses back a few cosmopolitans and opens up to Jean.

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