Something about Circuit Playhouse's production of Dead Man's Cell Phone, a surreal misadventure by Sarah Ruhl, seems awfully familiar, and I think I know why. Cell Phone's star Pamela Poletti once took on the difficult role of Rose, a socially awkward nebbish in William Mastrosimone's claustrophobic drama The Woolgatherer. Rose is obsessed with death and decay and has reconfigured her identity in order to manage both her intense loneliness and to stave off the ghosts of the past. Watching Poletti tackle Cell Phone's Jean is like watching that same unhinged character turned loose in a much bigger world at an earlier stage in her development. It is a weird and welcome reprise in every way.
Having enjoyed a bowl of lobster bisque at a mysteriously empty coffee house, Jean becomes annoyed when Gordon, the man seated across from her, refuses to answer his ringing cell phone. It turns out that this seemingly inconsiderate fellow is actually dead, so Jean answers his phone and that's where her extraordinary misadventure begins. Jean's uttering of the words, "No, he's not here. May I take a message?" sets into motion a string of inexplicable fibs that rips her from her mundane existence and takes her, quite literally, from here to eternity and back again.
Audiences who are unable to suspend their disbelief may tire of Ruhl's play fairly quickly. There is no logical explanation as to why the employees of the urban coffee shop suddenly disappear as soon as Jean discovers that Gordon is dead. And there's no easy answer as to why Jean doesn't contact the authorities or at least tell the callers that that poor Gordon's number has been permanently disconnected.
Instead of doing anything that might make sense, Jean pretends to have known Gordon and decides she's going to tell his friends and family whatever they want to hear in order to bring them comfort and closure. Even the generally masterful Poletti has a bit of trouble navigating some of Ruhl's self-consciously quirky bits, like when Jean presents Gordon's family with the salt and pepper shakers from the coffee shop, crafting incredible stories about how Gordon wanted his loved ones to have these special keepsakes.
Visiting director Sean Paul Bryan began his professional career at Playhouse on the Square in 1998. As a performance intern, he was cast as Alan Strang in a painfully misguided production of Peter Shaffer's Equus. The Flyer's review for that show, which happened to be my first review of a local production, was so caustic (and deservingly so) that some members of Memphis' theater community still haven't forgiven me for it. Nevertheless, after all these years, it's nice to finally say some nice things about the talented Bryan, who has presented Dead Man's Cell Phone as though it was a surrealist spy story, complete with a driving, Peter Gunn-inspired soundtrack and a set that might have been imagined by Rene Magritte. Bryan's cartoonish take on Ruhl's comedy always threatens to go to far but seldom does. And when it does, it does so with plenty of wit and style.
In this over-the-top play, Allen Busby, an actor known for his over-the-top performances, is uncommonly real. His Gordon occasionally rises from the dead to set the record straight, and Busby's bitter, no-nonsense reading of a man behaving badly keeps things real even as the plot veers toward classic conspiracy and urban myth. Likewise, Jason Hansen, whom Poletti once directed in a spectacular production of Waiting for Godot, continues to grow as a smart character actor. His character Dwight, Gordon's brother, is as awkward and needy as Jean, and the love these two nobodies find amid the creamy bits of fine paper in an upscale stationary store (and some of Ruhl's least credible writing) grounds this fun but flighty show in something like reality.
Only Stephanie Olson goes too far in her presentation of the "Other Woman," a mysterious character involved in Gordon's business. Her character is built around a Russian accent so thick and absurd one wonders if Moose and Squirrel are just offstage.
It's tempting to search for some deep meaning in Ruhl's work, and in most instances, one doesn't have to search very hard. But in the case of Dead Man's Cell Phone, it's probably best to avoid the temptation and simply enjoy the farce.
Through August 23rd
Walter Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a perfect antidote to the megamusicals that have dominated the scene for the past few decades. Bee requires virtually nothing in the way of a set, the costumes can pretty much be bought off the rack at your local thrift store, and the songs are simple, bouncy, and clever with nary a sweeping theme to be found anywhere. It's a short, sweet exercise in good old-fashioned entertainment, with some fun bits of improvisation tossed in for good measure.
Bee is also a gentle survey of socially awkward teenage stereotypes like the brainy Asian, the rumpled nerd, and the inexplicable weirdo. These types are also reflected in the play's adult characters, who are wonderfully played at Playhouse on the Square by Jenny Odle Madden, Michael Gravois, and a sweet-voiced mononym named TeKay.
Pete Montgomery nearly dominates this strong ensemble as William Barfee, a gruff Napoleon Dynamite-type who uses an unusual spelling technique called the "magic foot." His biggest competition, both as a speller and as an actor, comes from Nicole Renee Hale, whose adorable take on the tragic Olive Ovstrovsky is notable for being the only three-dimensional human on stage among all the caricatures. Laura Stracko and Lili Thomas are also notable as the politically active but speech-impared Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, and Marcy Park, a Jesus-obsessed Catholic school girl who speaks six languages and can twirl a baton with the best of them.
With songs like "I'm Not that Smart" and "My Unfortunate Erection," Bee is a repository of teenage anxiety, and for the most part, director Dave Landis gets things right. There are some occasional missteps and it's truly unfortunate that such a tight one-act has been marred with an intermission. Oh well. I guess you've got to sell those season subscriptions some time.