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'Dead Man's Cell Phone' at South Coast Repertory

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Sarah Ruhl is a playwright whose whimsy divides audiences. If you resist her capricious gambits, you wind up an unhappy -- possibly angry -- theatrical camper. "Dead Man's Cell Phone," her latest play, which opened Friday at South Coast Repertory, will test even her most faithful followers. But there's just enough tantalizing substance to rescue its quirkiness from all-out preciousness.

The daffy magical realism of "The Clean House," an earlier Ruhl offering (produced by SCR in 2005), made me want to throw in the towel during the first act. But the work accrued an emotional heft that became profoundly moving by the lyrical end. "Eurydice," her retelling of the Orpheus myth, which was given a sparely wondrous production by Circle X Theatre Co. in 2006, delicately ventured into the fraught subject of father-daughter eroticism. A few dismissed it as quasi-feminist fluff, but the vehemence of the reaction (mostly male) was telling. Charmingly sprightly as Ruhl can be, she hits nerves.

I once felt compelled to defend Ruhl against a visiting New York theater critic who was trashing her meteoric rise over an otherwise civilized lunch. "Dead Man's Cell Phone," however, fills me with a few second thoughts. When I first saw the play off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizon, in a production featuring Mary-Louise Parker and Kathleen Chalfant, I was surprisingly impatient despite my admiration for the actresses and the author. The experience, so unrelentingly loopy, was a bit like bingeing on the bags of Halloween candy you bought for all those no-show kids.

Yet I found myself more willing to go along with Ruhl's glucose rush this time around. True, any play that deploys a hiccup fit to get two characters romantically hitched is working the adorable angle a bit shamelessly. But credit director Bart DeLorenzo for arriving at a farcical style that doesn't try to be too funny or cute. This death-haunted play is both amusing and not amusing on its own idiosyncratic terms, and the production respects its jaunty distance from everyday realism while recognizing its abiding concerns with the conundrums of human nature.

As the story begins, Jean (Margaret Welsh) is communing with her private muse at a cafe whose only other occupant is a well-dressed gentleman, sitting as silent as the grave. His phone keeps going off, which prompts Jean after several polite overtures to answer it. In the process, she discovers the man has stopped breathing. Not wanting to abandon him to a cold and lonely afterworld, she pockets the phone and decides to take messages like a secretary who has futilely fallen in love with her deceased boss.

Turns out that the dead man in the expensive suit was named Gordon (Lenny Von Dohlen) and that he was an organ trafficker with perfidious connections. In rapid succession, Jean meets his callers, including his foreign lover (Nike Doukas) and his fire-breathing aristocratic mother (Christina Pickles wearing a dead animal as a fur wrap), who invites her to a formal family dinner. It's at this grotesque steak-fest that Jean, a vegetarian, encounters Gordon's unstable wife (Shannon Holt) and his appealingly hapless brother (Andrew Borba), a stationery store worker with whom she trysts as paper rains down on the two of them. (Warning: The play is filled with such fluttery flourishes.)

The more Jean learns about Gordon, the more she wants to know. Not having much of a life of her own, she eventually hops a jet to Johannesburg in search of answers to this dangerously fascinating question mark.

"Dead Man's Cell Phone" is a kind of car-less road movie in which comic episodes propel the protagonist on a wildly impromptu journey to crack the mystery of another person. The production, designed by Keith E. Mitchell and lighted by Lap-Chi Chu, is smooth, and the cast does a credibly kooky job. But by the time Jean reaches the outermost point in her itinerary, where the babble of cellphone conversations has drowned out the music of the spheres, you might start feeling slightly queasy from all the dippy high jinks.

Yet if her playwriting tactics are charming to a tooth-aching extreme, Ruhl isn't simply spinning cotton candy here. At the heart of the play is the paradox of our contemporary chattering condition: Never before have we been so constantly in touch with one other, or arguably more distant and disconnected.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

"Dead Man's Cell Phone," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends Oct. 12. $28-$64. (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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