Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****
Remember when phone calls were relatively private affairs, conducted at home or in the office or at least in the semi-seclusion of a phone booth?
Now, it's all too easy to overhear conversations, to become privy to the intimate lives of strangers. Playwright Sarah Ruhl takes that premise to a hilarious extreme in Dead Man's Cell Phone, at Trinity Repertory Company through March 28.
Like Ruhl's earlier work, The Clean House, which I saw at Trinity Rep in 2007, Dead Man's Cell Phone is full of sharp dialogue and quirky characters. She has some perceptive things to say about how we grieve, how technology has changed our lives and the connections we make. (Here's a profile of Ruhl from The New Yorker.)
As the play opens Jean (Janice Duclos), is sitting by herself in a cafe when a cell phone goes off at a nearby table. The phone's owner isn't answering it so she walks over and picks it up. Eventually, she realizes that the man has uh, expired.
For some inexplicable reason - loneliness, curiosity, a desire to help - Jean keeps the phone and continues to answer it.
Duclos is very funny as she gets more and more involved with the family of the dead man, whose name we learn is Gordon. It's like she can't stop herself. This is probably the most exciting thing that's ever happened to her.
She meets Gordon's "other woman," played with a terrific air of mystery by Rachael Warren; his long-suffering wife, Hermia (Phyllis Kay); and his very upper-crust mother, Mrs. Gottlieb. (Barbara Meek).
They want some reassurance that Gordon was thinking of them during his final moments. Jean, good-hearted soul that she is, weaves an ever-more elaborate tale that may not have much to do with reality but makes everyone feel a bit better.
Richard Donelly pulls double duty as Gordon, whom we meet at the beginning of Act II, and his mild-mannered brother Dwight. Donelly does such an amazing job portraying these two very different men that I almost couldn't believe it was the same person in both roles.
(Also, Donelly has an interesting background. Until he retired a few years ago, he worked as a plumber. You can read a Providence Phoenix story about him here.)
Under Beth Milles' direction, the first act moves along at a snappy pace in just under an hour.
The second act starts off well, with a very riveting and revealing monologue from Gordon. It's quite a shock. (Let's just say those snippets of cell phone conversations we overhear may not tell the whole story.)
After that, I felt like Dead Man's Cell Phone lost some steam. It takes a mystical, fantasy turn that seemed a little too incredible. Ruhl also tosses in a reference to the Holocaust that seemed totally gratuitous.
I liked the whimsical, quirky quality to Ruhl's writing. But a little bit of whimsy goes a long way.