A man dies in a café. His cellphone continues to ring. His only companion is a solitary diner who never spoke a word to him before his death. She talks to the corpse, takes his calls, and sets out on a journey to console his loved ones with fabricated tales of his parting words. It is a modern parable of communication lost and gone awry; a rumination, in this digital world, of how much we talk and how little we say.
The premise is good but the execution is flawed. The cast makes a valiant effort but they don’t quite fill the space or their roles. The venue is too big for an intimate drama like this, and requires the force of well-projected pronunciation and confident posturing. While undoubtedly capable, the actors’ technical skill is still perhaps in its infancy. This is not helped by what is an unpredictably immature script from Sarah Ruhl – it is in fact one of the more recent works of the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, but feels uncomfortably like an early work ill at ease with itself. At times delightful in its absurd analogies, it is also guilty of some resounding clangers (“like a torn jacket you gave me one of your buttons”). The flip between pathos and bathos of course may be completely intentional – but it requires a more subtly attuned performance to carry it off with conviction.
The meditation on our craving for silence and meaning in this world of instant messaging is interesting. There are moments of poignancy and some poetic observations (phone conversations overheard in the street are “fragments of lost love and hepatitis”), but they are too sparsely interpsersed, and intersected with too much clunky imagery. The nostalgia for the world before the digital age, when paper prevailed and phone booths still lined the streets, is growing a little hackneyed by the third or fourth soliloquy on the subject.
While this production has some solid moments of insight, it is not sustained enough to hold its audience captive throughout – however, with more experience, and perhaps a little less stage to fill, The Red Chair Players have the potential to grow to meet the tall order they’ve set themselves.
** – 2/5 Stars
Dead Man’s Cellphone is playing at C at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For more information and tickets, see the C venues website.