Sunday, October 18, 2009

Dead playwrights' society (or yes, Virginia, Sarah Ruhl still sucks)

A telling moment came about two thirds of the way through the first act of Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone at the Lyric this weekend. The show had been punctuated, as one expected, by a cell phone's relentless ringing - but suddenly everything went "meta" when one began to bleat in answer from the audience.

And its owner answered it. She took the call.

Now, normally, this kind of thing makes my blood boil (see note at right). But this time around, I could kind of sympathize; the call would probably prove more interesting than Ruhl's play, the woman had clearly reasoned. Indeed, I began to think about turning my cell back on and placing a call myself. I didn't think I'd miss anything.

Because once again Sarah Ruhl has produced a willfully whimsical piece of melancholic tedium masquerading as a statement. Watching it, I could hear a little inner voice murmuring "Nothing new here, Garvey, move along, move along . . ." So I'm going to spare you my usual level of chagrin at the travesty of this woman receiving a MacArthur grant (which of course means she can keep writing without any financial worries) and various other honors. Paula Vogel, the lesbian playwriting professor down at Brown, fell in love with Ruhl's work years ago and began to promote her, and Charles Isherwood, the gay New York Times second stringer, seems to have an inexplicable weakness for her twee meanderings too, so I guess Ruhl is here to stay. Maybe Charles and Paula are friends; I dunno. But there's got to be some explanation for the ascension of this mediocrity to the heights of American theatre (her next opus is slated for Broadway); I'm just damned if I know what it is.

But in case you haven't heard, the pretty-good premise of Dead, etc. is the chance encounter of a "nondescript" young woman with a glamorous businessman who drops dead next to her in a sushi place. She herself only notices he's sleeping with the fishes because his cell keeps ringing, and she's finally forced to answer it. Then she answers it again. And again. Then attends his funeral. And slowly becomes drawn into his life, that ever-jangling cell offering a magical "open sesame" to his family, lovers, friends, and business associates.

Just precisely what his unspoken business is (or was) is the rather obvious MacGuffin that Ruhl uses to tease us into Act Two. But after her big reveal - it turns out the sleaze sold human organs - she lets what loose structure she's maintained up to this point go, and just begins to play with her dramatic finger paints, as usual. Interludes from the afterlife, trips to heaven and hell, even a brief snippet of the Ice Capades (above left) - everything goes, and it's mostly pretty lame. Yes, I know Ruhl's unbound by logic or plot or psychology, and I know she's unafraid to be unpredictable, and embraces the profoundly irrational, and the irrationally profound. The only trouble is that she's unpredictably, irrationally, profoundly lame.

To be fair, as with Eurydice, there are a few bright spots here and there in all the pretentious whimsy - a few tight, pointed monologues about cell phone bondage, and a couple of weirdly bittersweet, amoral jokes about The Way We Live Now; but mostly, we sit staring, wondering what the fuck Ruhl thinks she's getting at with the latest hairpin turn in her "plot." Oh wait, don't tell me - it's like cell phones bring us together, and yet push us apart. Was that the irrationally profound part?

Sorry, I can't help snickering at this playwright and her my-journal-belongs-on-Broadway aesthetic. Because there's an intellectual error in her self-justifying prattle that's all too obvious: Ruhl assumes that she has the poetic power to take the audience along with her on her magical mystery tours. But - how to put this nicely? - she just doesn't. There's little or no resonance in Eurydice or Dead Man's Cell Phone - no weird chills like the one in Buried Child, for instance, where the corpse of the baby is mysteriously exhumed from the vanished cornfield, when the image feels strangely "right' even though we can't quite explain why. Perhaps the greatest theatre depends on such deep, irrational responses and recognitions, on a kind of shared dream between playwright and audience. But what's always at issue is that "shared" part - Ruhl doesn't realize it, but she's off daydreaming by herself, while most of her audience, the ones with no stake in her young-female-writer identity, are scratching their heads.

Still, to be honest, I can't really sneer at the Lyric's current production. It looks coolly terrific (the stylishly mutating set is by Cristina Todesco) and has been ably directed by Carmel O'Reilly, of whom I'm hardly a fan; but I have to admit this time she's assembled a strong cast, and dresses this turkey about as well as I think anyone could. I never actually bought, I admit, the talented Liz Hayes as Ruhl's mousey heroine; Hayes is just too strong and capable a presence. But she goes through the motions with commitment, and you can almost buy, for instance, that she'd let some slightly-creepy guy braid her hair in the closet of a stationery store, as Ruhl would have it. Almost. At any rate, Hayes gets a lot of help in maintaining the illusion of her supposed insecurity from the rest of the cast, in which there's not a weak link. Neil McGarry is all confident, handsome-anchorman smarm as the eponymous Dead Man, and as his distant wife, Bryn Jameson ably tosses off a weirdly amusing drunk scene which is probably the high point of the script. Meanwhile Jeff Mahoney manages to make that slightly-creepy hair-braider sympathetic (and even a little appealing), and Beth Gotha at least nails all her laughs as his erratically imperious mother (she can't really pin down a character in this pastiche of gimmicks, but who could?). The real find of the production, however, is newcomer Jessica D. Turner, who definitely knows, as her hot-to-trot character purrs, both how to enter a room and how to walk in nosebleed heels. We'll be hearing more from Ms. Turner, trust me. If only this were the last we were to hear of Ms. Ruhl.

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