Dead Man’s Cell Phone Steppenwolf Theatre

Polly Noonan personifies Sarah Ruhl’s plays the way Jimmy Stewart personified Frank Capra’s movies. Just as Stewart’s long-limbed, falling-out-of-his-own-body boyishness evoked everything Capra had to say about American democracy, Noonan fleshes out the pixilated gravity of Ruhl’s theatrical fairy tales. She’s a slight, squeaky-voiced thing, with asymmetrical eyes that can make her seem childlike, surprised, goofy, vulnerable, inscrutable, a little unhinged, and perfectly sincere all at once—exactly like Ruhl’s plays.

Ruhl and her collaborators clearly understand and appreciate this affinity because they’ve cast Noonan in multiple stagings of multiple Ruhl scripts. That she stars in this new, often beautiful but flawed one seems especially apt because Dead Man’s Cell Phone unfolds like a catalog of gambits from the playwright’s oeuvre. As in The Clean House (one of the very few Ruhl productions Noonan hasn’t appeared in), there’s a heroic journey in the name of love. Where Passion Play includes solemn processions of outsize fish, this production offers umbrellas and miniature illuminated houses on parade. And most significant, the attempt to transcend death that forms the centerpiece of Eurydice is, well, resurrected here.

Noonan plays Jean, a 39-year-old single woman who happens to be sitting in a restaurant, eating lobster bisque and reading, when a businessman at the next table dies. He does it so unobtrusively that Jean doesn’t realize he’s gone until his cell phone rings and he fails to answer it. She takes the call herself, and then others. Compulsively empathic, she bonds with the late stranger, Gordon Gottlieb, through his still-live cell. This leads to a situation—very like the one in the 1995 Sandra Bullock vehicle, While You Were Sleeping—where Jean gets hopelessly enmeshed with Gordon’s mother, brother, wife, and mistress, trying to give each of them what they wanted but couldn’t get from the less-than-exemplary Gordon.

It also leads to a series of set pieces that Ruhl seems to have crafted mainly to give herself the chance to expound—exquisitely, every character in her stylized world being an aphorist on a par with Walter Benjamin—on subjects that interest her. Gordon’s wife has a wonderful speech about the ironies of sexual role playing in a dyfunctional marriage; his mother holds forth on glamour (“Women are responsible for enlivening places”); the sensual pleasures of stationery come up for poetic discussion; and of course there’s plenty—albeit not much you haven’t heard before, from other cranky Luddites—on the subject of cell phones, ranging from their role in the death of etiquette to their possible use in metaphysical communications.

But the essential subjects here are love and death. In his March 17 New Yorker profile of Ruhl, John Lahr points to the loss of her father as a central trauma of Ruhl’s early adulthood and an inspiration for Eurydice, her melancholy retelling of the Greek story about the woman whose beloved Orpheus tried—and failed—to retrieve her from Hades. Since that play premiered in 2003, Ruhl has married and become a mother, and Dead Man’s Cell Phone seems to reflect a more positive response to the question of whether love truly does conquer all. And yet the speech that conveys this emerging optimism feels like a rewrite—whether or not it actually is. Like a wild wish, tacked on to convince us, and perhaps the author, of a notion unsupported by anything that’s gone before. A bit of artificial sweetening. Delivered by Noonan, it constitutes the weakest, simpiest, least believable passage in the play.

What’s worse, it’s strategically placed in the closing moments, like the message from the visiting officer after a school dramatization of fire safety—so you end up with an unpleasant, aspartame-ish taste in your mouth. Which is too bad because practically everything preceding the Nutrasweet speech adds up to a delightful, clear-eyed entertainment that doesn’t require an imposed moral, there being one already, one that rises up naturally from the action of the play: be mindful of where you put your emotional energy—it’s as finite as a life span and you don’t want to waste it on the wrong things.

The key to watching this play, then, is not to let its final passage negate its pleasures.

Jessica Thebus directed the sumptuous, whimsical Goodman Theatre production of The Clean House, and she brings an equal but much simplified visual intelligence to this Steppenwolf show. The enormous upstage opening that dominates Scott Bradley’s set, for instance, can provide conventional context—as, for instance, when it’s serving as the plate glass window of the restaurant where Gordon dies—or a frame for dreamscape pageants.

The cast is just about perfect. Dressed for an Edward Gorey book, Molly Regan is both funny and unexpectedly affecting as Gordon’s eccentric, intimidating mother, while Coburn Goss gives Gordon’s brother Dwight a quiet, sexy masculinity even as he braids hair and talks creamy paper finishes. Mary Beth Fisher and Sarah Charipar each get a hilarious set piece as Gordon’s wife and mistress. But it’s Marc Grapey’s big speech as Gordon himself that crosses over into realms of the bravura. A talented actor who hasn’t yet gotten his due, Grapey deserves big moments like this even if he has to play dead to get them.v