Dead Man's Cell Phone (Review)

A lively search for meaning at ETC

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Critic's Pick

Imagine one of René Magritte’s paintings brought to fulminous, razzle-dazzle life. That’s Sarah Ruhl’s highly, wryly comic new play, Dead Man’s Cell Phone. Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati offers this regional premiere in a well conceived but mostly impenetrable production directed by Michael Evan Haney and brilliantly designed by Brian c. Mehring.

Ruhl’s richer, more approachable Clean House met with huge approval at Cincinnati Playhouse in 2006. Know Theatre offered Eurydice last spring, and her new adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters opens at the Playhouse later this month.

As Magritte was when he painted a locomotive emerging from a fireplace, Ruhl is detailed in her obscurity. Words, thoughts and images are precise. Her often hilarious dialogue follows some loopy logic merged with guileless innocence.

Gordon (Nick Rose) had wanted lobster bisque. He now sits motionless at a restaurant table. Jean (Annie Fitzpatrick), a stranger, is nearby, annoyed when he doesn’t answer his persistent cell phone. Thing is, he’s dead.

Jean answers, then inserts herself into his life. She meets his colorful mother (Kate Wilford). His widow (kj Jones) pickles her grief in vodka. His robotic brother (Brian Isaac Phillips) has a simpleton manner that masks deep affection. His dragon lady associate (Morgan Grahame) entangles Jean in Gordon’s horrid business.

That’s all I can reveal. I can’t particularize the Act II opening except to say that fine words are stunningly acted. All I can safely say of the cast is that they conjure magic out of mystery.

What’s it about? Well, it’s about 20 minutes too long. Beyond that you’re on your own.

Does a melting Dali watch mean that time is relevant, it’s irrelevant or that you’re late for a dental appointment? Ruhl makes free with hints and signs but offers no road map or assurances. Cell Phone means whatever you think it means.

DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE, presented by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through Oct. 25. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.

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