STAGEStheatre Stages Two Comedies

Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone and David and Amy Sedaris' The Book of Liz feel as different as lobster bisque does from a breakfast burrito. The first is a time-, space- and form-bending comedy with poignant, poetic accents, while the latter is a gleefully light, snarky comedy dealing mostly with cheeseballs. Yet both shows, currently running at STAGEStheatre, share a similar concern: human connection and how the social constructs we create to communicate have a decidedly uncommunicative flip side.

As the title indicates, a dead guy's cell phone is the MacGuffin of Ruhl's 2006 play. Jean (Kerri Hellmuth) is draining the last bit of lobster bisque from her bowl as a cell phone begins to ring. Flustered, she approaches a neighboring table, only to realize the man who owns the phone has keeled over. She calls 911, sits with him, and then decides to claim the phone as hers.

That leads her into meeting the dead man's family: his overbearing mother (Kimberly Wooldridge), icy mistress (Katelyn Schiller), scorned wife (Jennifer Pearce) and kindly young brother (Wesley Chavez). It also leads her to discover the grisly reality of what said dead guy, Gordon Gottlieb (a sinister and ghoulish Keith Bush), actually did, which then results in their meeting in some weird afterlife, parallel-dimension reality.

Ruhl's play is intentionally vague. We know nothing about Jean's backstory or what motivates her to claim Gordon's phone. And there is a reason for that. As Jean alludes to several times in Dead Man's Cell Phone, ubiquitous electronic devices mean we are always plugged in, yet still completely alone. We're all connected, but only ethereally. Though we have the universe at our fingertips, it bring us no closer to knowing the person standing next to us or even ourselves.

That vagueness works in Ruhl's play because she is such a talented, poetic writer. But it's something any production must deal with. And this one, directed by Brian Johnson, doesn't fully meet that challenge. Because Jean's motivation isn't explained in the dialogue, it's up to the production to give the audience something to go on regarding her obsession with Gordon's cell phone. Otherwise, she comes off as creepy. She's basically stealing a dead guy's phone. There isn't enough in Jean's initial encounter with Gordon's corpse to key that motivation for the audience (in Ruhl's stage direction, Jean falls in love with Gordon's gaze, which seems as if he is “transfigured, as though he was just looking at something he found eminently beautiful”). Without that foundation, the rest of what transpires happens on shaky ground.

That's about the only misstep in this production, which is both funny and touching. Hellmuth grows as Dead Man's Cell Phone continues, and Pearce is hilarious in a drunken scene in which the wife recounts her sexual fantasizing—she pretended she was someone else with her husband. Director Johnson and set designer Jon Gaw's use of projections on the back wall is also excellent, both opening up the stage and adding a visual adornment to what's happening. All too often, technological elements overpower or obscure the work onstage; here, they illuminate it.

The Book of Liz takes a different approach to loneliness. The characters living in a “Squeamish” community are as technologically savvy as the Amish. All they have are one another and, of course, the Lord. But chained to their dogma, the result is formal hierarchy and brain-addled gossip. Cheeseball-making Sister Elizabeth Donderstock (a sparkling Jenelle Smith) grows frustrated with the lack of genuine connection and free thinking, so she flees to the real world, where she flourishes as an employee at a Pilgrim-themed greasy spoon. Yet even there, she encounters dogma; this time, it doesn't stem from the Bible, but from Bill W.'s Big Book. Finding corporate bureaucracy as stifling as the Squeamish's archaic social system, she once again feels overlooked and bound by constraints.

Director Christopher Spencer knows the best way to stage an intentionally goofy play is to mine the funny, and he and his excellent cast do just that (Terri Mowrey shines in a variety of ridiculous over-the-top roles, and Matt DeNoto and Ryan Shogren also display versatility in multiple roles).

Both of these are comedies and although their journeys are far different, both end on a positive, uplifting note. And while Ruhl's play does far more poetically and satisfyingly, each addresses the threat to individuality presented by over-reliance on something else out there, whether that platform is digital, metaphysical or secular. Whether the object of devotion is technology, God or the 12 Steps, the moment our blind faith in anything gets in the way of knowing ourselves or empathizing with others, it might be time for a big reality check.

P.S: Though it's not mentioned in either play, Scientology sucks.

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