Former Chicago playwright Sarah Ruhl is getting lots of attention and performances these days, and rightfully so. So much so, in fact, that Ruhl was in London opening a new play while her hometown Steppenwolf opened this production, and thus sent her mother, Chicago actress Kathleen Ruhl, in her place. But like Ruhl’s “Passion Play,” which Goodman presented last fall, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” feels more like the torso of a great play in progress rather than a finished work. The first act is brilliant: a bored woman chides a man whose cell phone keeps going off at a café, only to find that the poor guy has died. She answers the phone and begins interacting with the world of the dead man, trying to tell those that she connects with what she thinks they want to hear. Knowing nothing about the dead man, her good intentions often backfire and create Seinfeldesque scenarios of their own that are funny and moving at the same time. But by the time the second act begins and the dead guy himself shows up and explains what was going on that day, the play loses its credibility. Up until that point, everything we know about the guy we learn from the information gleaned by the woman who answers his phone, which is fascinating. And if the guy never showed up, whether in her mind or “outside of time,” Ruhl would really be on to something (she is young and often keeps revising and revisiting, so it could still happen). We would then continue to learn his bizarre secrets as she does, rather than be tipped off. We would also avoid the needlessly complicated and contrived plot twists that depend, ironically enough, on “Liliom” and “Carousel,” believe it or not, right down to using “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Still, Ruhl is one of the most unique theater voices to come along in quite a while, and it is clear that when the smoke clears and her voice is finally unleashed full force, look out. Even this show, despite its flaws, is well worth seeing for Ruhl’s masterful use of language alone. (Dennis Polkow)
At the Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, (312)335-1650. Through Jul 27.