There's no particular reason that Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone has to be colorful, silly, upbeat, or life-affirming. Actors Theatre's Matthew Wiener could have directed it as a relatively serious play with a few very funny lines. It starts like this: Gordon, a self-centered man in a very questionable line of work, dies, alone in a cafe while Jean, a lone stranger, sits at a nearby table. His phone rings incessantly. Before an annoyed Jean realizes Gordon's dead, she finally answers his phone. And it just goes on from there.
I'm rather glad it didn't work out that way, though. Life is the saddest thing in the whole world, but it's also the funniest thing, and being able to laugh at what's absurd makes the hyper-meaningful parts more meaningful, in my opinion and in Friedrich Nietzsche's: "[H]appiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together or remain small together." Or, for a more contemporary and accessible viewpoint, Marie Osmond: "If you're going to look back on something and laugh about it, you might as well laugh about it now."
Lightheartedness sounds like a good philosophy for Actors Theatre, too -- they've raised enough money to finish this season, but the third stage of fundraising, with the goal of helping ensure a stable future, is moving along like an Arizona centennial show. (That's not exactly how managing director Erica McKibben Black put it in her curtain speech, but it is taking longer than expected.) While they try to find some nice endowments and/or corporate sponsors, they'd be ever so grateful if you could throw them another ten bucks.
In the meantime, they've made us a very funny show. Ruhl's script describes Jean as a relatively small person, and she's played by the genuinely petite and wide-eyedly game Meghan Malloy. If you can't tell from a distance whether Malloy is little, Wiener has helpfully cast the towering Sally Jo Bannow and Joe Kremer in the ensemble, too. Kremer is one of the Valley's best physical comedians, but what's even more amazing in Cell Phone is that he's just playing some guy, and he somehow keeps you from noticing that his arms and legs are each the size of an entire person except for select moments when he unfolds them for effect.
Most of the characters in the play are rather civilized people -- they sit around a lot. One way you can tell that Wiener and his cast are geniuses is that despite all this sitting (in the cafe, in church, at dinner, in a stationery store), it feels like there's a lot of nearly frantic action taking place.
One of the most refreshing elements is the scene changes, in which cast members and stagehands enter in black coats and bowler hats and everyone boogies to some vintage disco. It's weird, yet it fits.
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As time passes, it all gets weirder and weirder, eventually taking us beyond death and back again. As far as I can tell, this is one of Ruhl's funniest plays and is supposed to be (I've only seen Eurydice), but it's also about the power of love and a kind word.
Dead Man's Cell Phone continues through Sunday, March 11, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. For tickets, $20.50 to $43.50, call 602-252-8497 or click here.