There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Woolly Mammoth’s world-premiere production of Sarah Ruhl’s play opens on a woman (Polly Noonan) reaching across a cafe table to pick up the titular object midring, and it closes on a tidy moral lesson. (In fact, the way everything ties up so nicely and edifyingly at the end is beyond tidy, it’s downright anal-retentive, but that’s the joke of the thing, and it works.) To this narrative exoskeleton, Ruhl has affixed moments that give director Rebecca Taichman room to innovate and the actors room to dazzle. What you glimpse in many of these scenes is the theatrical alchemy of a writer, director, and cast ideally suited to one another. It’s there, for example, when Noonan’s meek Jean (whom the script describes as having “an insular quality, as though she doesn’t want to take up space,” something Noonan absolutely nails) meets with the dead man’s decidedly non-meek mistress (the effortlessly funny Jennifer Mendenhall, in femme fatale mode). The stark contrast between these characters gets plenty of laughs, some of which are sparked by Ruhl’s sharp dialogue, some by the actors’ delivery, and some from simply seeing how differently the two women go about the task of sitting in a chair. And just when you feel that the tone of the play is starting to ossify—much of the first act feels as fragile and birdlike as its main character—the second act introduces a new energy altogether, opening on a monologue delivered with easy, naturalistic brio by the dead man (Rick Foucheux). When that speech comes, you realize it’s exactly the ingredient the play’s been missing—and that Ruhl has been waiting for just the right time to add it to the mix. That kind of care and precision is matched in Taichman’s direction: The actors’ movements are small and focused (watch Noonan picking at the arm of a dining-room chair as she meets the dead man’s family for the first time), and scenes transition with balletic grace. That’s good, because material this deliberately loopy needs discipline to work. Noonan’s performance, for example, starts off so pinched and reedy that you can’t imagine where she’ll find room to go, but find room she does, revealing facets of the woman that deepen the characterization. As the dead man’s mother, Sarah Marshall occasionally pushes the farcical elements of her character a bit further than suits the singular balance of tone this particular staging has struck, but she gets the best lines and is funny as hell, so why cavil? Woolly’s production channels Ruhl’s more caustic impulses in ways that keep the satire sharp and quick instead of diffuse or broad, which leaves room for a surprising amount of heart. That a play called Dead Man’s Cell Phone offers a comedic meditation on the subjects of death and technology isn’t surprising. That it manages to particularize those abstract ideas with such unfussy eloquence, that its insights emerge so naturally from its characters, and, further, that all of this unfolds at a brisk trot? That’s cause for celebration.