The opening of “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” has the suspicious feel of a playwright’s practical joke. A woman sits alone at a café table. A well-dressed man sits very still at another. Suddenly his cell phone rings, at which point everyone in the theatre looks around to see which poor soul forgot to shut theirs off. It takes a few rings before they realize this is actually the first sound of the show they just paid to watch. After countless performances interrupted by inconsiderate spectators’ beeping and jingling pockets, this particular production and its crew have finally turned the tables on the audience. This is but the first of many winks that Sarah Ruhl’s playful script—being performed by The Lyric Stage Company of Boston through Nov. 14—has in store.
As the man’s phone continues to ring on the tabletop, Jean (Liz Hayes), the young woman at the next table, comes over to ask politely that its owner silence it. She quickly discovers that the reason he refuses to answer the phone or her demure entreaties is that he is quite dead. Jean cries out for help several times, then uses the phone to call emergency services, telling them—and the audience—in answer to the obvious question: “There seems to be no one working at this café!” Wink. The play is not afraid to laugh at its own conventions, and, indeed, it revels in them. Director Carmel O’Reilly delights in having her actors talk half to each other and half to her viewers, to great effect.
Jean turns out to be an irrepressible, earnest soul—so much so, in fact, that she takes on the dead man’s phone as a charge and proceeds to invent deathbed incidents to console grieving relatives and acquaintances. The deceased is revealed to be Gordon Gottlieb (Neil McGarry), a rather well-to-do businessman who seems to have been more engaged by his money than the people around him. Jean proceeds to weave narratives of comfort for Gordon’s estranged mother (Beth Gotha), embittered wife Hermia (Bryn Jameson, in a wonderful supporting effort), and his vain, insecure mistress (Jessica Turner).
This first part of the play is carried almost entirely by Hayes’ effervescent performance, her boundless enthusiasm overcoming the assorted awkward situations she gets herself into. Jean is the sort of person who can apologize for Mrs. Gottlieb’s verbal abuse of her, explaining to Gordon’s brother, an embarrassed Dwight (Jeff Mahoney), that “People are usually nice, deep down, in the right circumstances, at the right time. I think your mother’s just in the wrong circumstances, at the very wrong time.”
But it is after these preliminary encounters that the play truly comes into its own, beginning with a masterful monologue by the departed Gordon, who stalks the stage as though he owns it while recounting the events of his last day. This metaphysical materialization isn’t surprising—prominently featured in the production’s playbill, actor Neil McGarry is not just there to play dead—but it is inspired. Indeed, McGarry is the other shining star of this production, exuding charisma and likability despite being undeniably arrogant and domineering. Bringing back the dead man to tell his true story after it has just been charmingly rewritten by an outsider turns the play on its head and provides new and unexpected life. The audience is given notice: the story has officially become unpredictable.
The production pulls off an unlikely grab bag of novelties—kung fu, ice skating, and a letterpress among them—with whimsy and good humor, never taking itself so seriously as to become incapable of surprising its audience. On the small Lyric Stage Company set, creative lighting (under the direction of John Malinowski) serves to evoke such varied locales as the sterile café, a somber funeral chapel, and the sunlit bench upon which Jean meets an aggrieved friend of the deceased. Music is largely transitional, but the incessant ring of Gordon’s cell phone—the most important sound of all and a character in its own right—is spot on.
Ultimately, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is more witty than profound. It has not so much subtext as text messaged bits of comic cleverness. But compellingly quirky lead performances and an unlikely, surprisingly sentimental story make this production a success. If not a life-changing experience, it’s the sort of friendly, life-affirming conversation of which our best days are made.