Monday, June 8, 2009

Cell Phones and Kidney Lamps

It was the lamp, shaped like a kidney, that really pushed me over the edge. Prior to the appearance of this bizarre prop, I'd been hedging my bets on the production of Dead Man's Cell Phone that I was watching at the SF Playhouse--liking some of the amusing characters and lines of dialogue, but also frustrated at how much of the play seemed forced, rather than organic. The characters were overly prone to engage in philosophical reflections about how the cell phone has affected modern life; some of the attempts at whimsical humor fell flat because they tried too hard, e.g. "You are very comforting--like a very small casserole"; and even though the play was about the death of a real nogoodnik, and the woman who tells increasingly big lies about him to his grieving family, I could see a "redemptive" ending approaching from a mile off. Though I suppose I should know to expect that kind of denouement from a Sarah Ruhl play by now--even if it doesn't always fit. (For the record, I thought that the ending of Passion Play was forced--if ever a drama deserved a tragic death scene, it's the story of the Passion!--but that the redemption worked all right in The Vibrator Play.)

But, as I said, that lamp was the last straw. Jean, who was sitting in a cafe near a stranger named Gordon when he died, and has since been answering his cell phone and "comforting" (that is, lying to) his relatives, has just learned that Gordon was in the business of organ trafficking. When his phone rings and it's one of his business contacts, Jean consents to fly to Johannesberg and meet her at the airport, but instead of bringing the agreed-upon kidney, she makes a papier-mache lamp shaped like a kidney and attempts to give it away instead. And that's where I completely gave up on the play. The kidney-lamp was neither funny nor cute; worse than that, this was not even a recognizably human thing for Jean to do. I felt as though the actors were floundering up there, trying to make sense of a character who behaved in a completely alien way. (I had a similar reaction to The Clean House when Charles came onstage dragging a fifty-foot-long yew tree, having chopped it down in Alaska and flown it in a personal plane across-country, as a healing gift for his sick wife.) And after that, the play continued to go downhill--a poorly choreographed fight sequence, a trip to the afterlife, a revelation of the oh-so-whimsical things that Gordon's relatives are doing several months after his death, a coy love scene, and a self-conscious curtain line. Sheesh. At least The Clean House had a good final line.

I believe that there are very few subjects that are inherently "bad" ideas for a play--what really matters is how you dramatize the material. Act One of Dead Man's Cell Phone works because it is basically a character study of Jean's interactions with Gordon's relatives; if the play had stayed on this, recognizably human, level, it might have succeeded. Could have got a bit Six Degrees of Separation-ish, even--the story of someone who tells lies to ingratiate herself with a group of strangers. I liked the scenes with Gordon's mother (an imperious dowager in a fur stole) and the one where his widow was getting drunk at a bar. These characters are not really subtle, but they're not going around giving kidney-lamps to people, either. Another fun scene is the monologue that opens Act II--Gordon talking about the day he died. Paradoxically, the dead man becomes one of the most alive characters in the whole play, because he gets to be snarky and nasty and cheerfully amoral--all qualities not usually possessed by the inhabitants of Sarah Ruhl-land. That is, until the redemptive urge starts to kick in, and Gordon confesses "I saw her across the café... She looked like an angel." And with that, the monologue dies on its feet.

Then again, this play seemed to have been written more as a way of laying out a series of philosophical arguments about cell phones and human connection, than to investigate the inner lives of its characters and the truth of their stories. The musings on cell phones aren't profound enough to justify this approach; and I daresay that this is the wrong impulse from which to begin writing a play, anyway...

Photo: Amy Resnick, as Jean, holds the offending lamp.

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