A couple of excellent recent productions have amply shown local audiences why Sarah Ruhl is the hottest playwright in the country. Her plays are clever and fresh, simultaneously thought-provoking and entertaining, and theatrical in all the best senses of the word.
But both productions — Jobsite Theater's current Dead Man's Cell Phone at the Shimberg Playhouse, and Stageworks' Eurydice, in the same space recently — also show that Ruhl's work can be frustratingly flawed.
That's especially apparent in Dead Man's Cell Phone. The first act is crisp, original and appealing, packed with amusing characters, sharp dialogue and a slightly off-center sense of humor. The last half-second of the opening act offers a wonderful little trick that makes you wish you didn't have to wait through intermission to see what happens next.
Unfortunately, after intermission, you find out that the fun's pretty much over. The second act is largely a muddle of uninteresting metaphysical ideas, preposterous attempts at intrigue and unsatisfying resolutions.
It's obvious that the fault lies in the play itself, not in the production. The six-person cast, directed by David M. Jenkins, is phenomenal, delivering some of the most uniformly excellent acting you're likely to see on a Tampa stage this year.
The premise has a mousy woman named Jean (played by Meg Heimstead), encountering a recently deceased man named Gordon whose cell phone rings repeatedly. She starts answering his calls and decides to investigate his life. She poses as a former employee of the dead man and meets his hostile wife (Summer Bohnenkamp Jenkins, who's strong in a small role), his marvelously creepy mother (Elizabeth Fendrick, who's phenomenal) and his normal but needy brother (the always excellent Michael C. McGreevy).
Heimstead, whose performance achieves a difficult blend of timidity and charisma, gives us a sense that all this is quite out of character for Jean. She's constantly terrified of being found out, but she revels in what may be the first real adventure in her sheltered life. She even falls in love with the dead man's brother, in a tastefully realized and rather touching subplot. It's all a lot of fun, and often very funny.
In the play's second half, Gordon (Steve Garland, who's appropriately gruff but still sympathetic), starts talking to us from beyond the grave. It turns out he was involved in a questionable business, and that Jean has unwittingly involved herself with some sinister people. There's a clandestine meeting in a foreign airport, after which Jean joins Gordon in the afterlife.
It's all as stupid as it sounds. Ruhl builds wonderful characters and has some pleasing insights into relationships and the human condition in general. But she exhausts them in the first act. The frayed ends of Ruhl's work make the experience frustrating, but in that first hour of stimulating and original theater she delivers more than many playwrights can.
Marty Clear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.