Sarah Ruhl has a fairytale wisdom in her writing that escalates wide-eyed sincerity from a kitschy generic Magic of Theater to a sort of lightness where poetry flows. Her characters are real people navigating dark spheres with childlike earnestness inseparable from their language. At the best of times, the bitterest among us might accidentally suck it up and click our heels when leaving the theater. But The Comrades’ “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is a tough pill to swallow. Already one of Ruhl’s looser pieces, director Arianna Soloway and her cast don’t tighten any of the nuts on this one.
Gordon (Bryan Breau) has died, and his cell phone goes off. Jean (Cydney Moody), who does not know him, answers and falls deep into Gordon’s familial woes and sour business deals. It’s a whimsical premise with ideas jutting out at odd angles: grief is intertwined with what presence means in the twenty-first century, all wrapped up with more than a hint of marital strife.
Those issues are touched upon but none are developed. Instead of making a theme or a character the centerpiece, we’re trapped in an expressionistic noir. Style points, for sure, but like most of the ideas, the aesthetic is a gimmick that never finds resonance. Conjoined with unpointed gestures—they’re people miming phones— it’s easy pickings. Even the feminist underpinnings fall flat.
And Ruhl’s language? It’s rarely connected to the cast’s emotional life. Instead, it’s burdened with subtext, a little too grave to be anything else. The big exception is Breau’s fantastically skeezy Gordon. But he’s dead for the first half of the show. By the second, we already understand that these characters are serious people with serious issues. When we look past that, we see the artistic thinness at the heart of this show. (Jay Van Ort)
The Comrades at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2557 North Lincoln, (773)404-7336, the-comrades.com, $7-$20. Through March 10.