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STAGE REVIEW

Of life’s mysteries and missed calls

Liz Hayes (standing on chair) stars in Sarah Ruhl’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,’’ at the Lyric Stage Company. Liz Hayes (standing on chair) stars in Sarah Ruhl’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,’’ at the Lyric Stage Company. (
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By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / October 20, 2009

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By this point, to build a play around the centrality of the cellphone in our lives is to do no more than acknowledge the obvious.

But Sarah Ruhl takes it a meta-step further, suggesting that even in death, those tiny, all-powerful devices - part technological tool, part talisman - will make it possible for our lives to go on without us.

Ruhl’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,’’ now receiving a smart and stylish production at Lyric Stage Company, is billed as a comedy, but the comedy is not of the knee-slapping variety. The playwright has a quirky, John Guare-like sensibility, where the goal is to keep you off-balance by shifting suddenly from humor to utter seriousness, and where awkward silences and pauses give shape to the characters as much as the dialogue does.

These silences help underscore the points Ruhl has to make about the difficulty of making connections, about the fluidity of identity, and about the eternal mystery we human beings are to one another. Can we ever know another person, living or dead? Can we even know ourselves?

Jean, a single woman in her late 30s who is the central character of “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,’’ starts to confront these questions when a well-dressed businessman named Gordon silently expires at the cafe table next to hers. Then his cellphone rings. Though he is a complete stranger, Jean makes the fateful decision to answer his phone.

She keeps doing so. The law of unintended consequences is bound to kick in sooner or later, and it does. Call by call, encounter by encounter, Jean is drawn - or, rather, she willingly ventures - deeper into the mysterious, secretive life of the departed.

“I want to remember everything,’’ Jean admits. “Even other people’s memories.’’ Yet she also takes it upon herself to shape the memories of Gordon’s loved ones. Jean makes up stories to comfort Gordon’s wife, mother, and lover, claiming to be his co-worker and reassuring each of them in turn that his last thoughts were of them. She creates an idealized portrait of a man she never knew - and that portrait is not entirely recognizable to those who did know him.

But for different reasons, each of them needs to believe Jean. “You’re very comforting,’’ Gordon’s mother, Mrs. Gottlieb, tells Jean. “I don’t know why. You’re like a very small casserole - has anyone ever told you that?’’

Ruhl has insisted that Jean’s tales should not be seen as lies but “confabulations,’’ and Liz Hayes, as Jean, plays them that way. With her tentative, hopeful face and her gray pleated skirt, gray blouse, gray sweater, and gray stockings, Hayes creates the poignant sense that Jean is waiting for her own life to happen. She is a digital-age Dorothy who leaps at the chance to enter another world. Like Oz, that world is replete with confusion and danger (Jean will learn what Gordon did for a living, and it isn’t pretty), but it also opens up new horizons (she embarks on a romance with Gordon’s overshadowed brother, Dwight).

Director Carmel O’Reilly guides the cast adroitly through Ruhl’s tricky territory, aided considerably by evocative effects created by sound designer Dewey Dellay. Beth Gotha portrays Gordon’s mother, Mrs. Gottlieb, as carnivorous in every sense of the word, yet touching in the rawness of her loss. We believe this imposing matriarch when she says that she mourns Gordon more deeply than anyone else (an assertion Mrs. Gottlieb will eventually go to drastic lengths to prove).

Jeff Mahoney is fine as Dwight, but Ruhl has written his romance with Jean in a cloying, puppy-love vein, with some particularly soggy moments in a stationery store. As Gordon’s widow, Hermia, Bryn Jameson creates a character who is the human equivalent of a dry martini (she reminded me of Christine Baranski’s Maryann Thorpe in “Cybill’’), yet plausible in her moments of regret at not committing herself more fully to her marriage. Jessica D. Turner brings a femme-fatale allure to the role of the Other Woman. Neil McGarry conveys the charisma of the roguish, unrepentant Gordon so completely that we understand what all the posthumous fuss is about.

Yes, we do hear from the dead man, and at quite some length. And soon we will hear more from the 35-year-old Ruhl, who debuts on Broadway this week with “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play.’’ On the strength of “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,’’ when Ruhl calls, theatergoers should probably answer.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE Play by: Sarah Ruhl

Directed by Carmel O’Reilly

Sets, Cristina Todesco. Costumes, David Reynoso. Lights, John Malinowski. At: Lyric Stage Company, through Nov. 14. Tickets $25-$50, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com

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