Don't you hate it when you're sitting across the room from someone who refuses to answer their cell phone? Inevitably, you do a slow burn while they nonchalantly let it ring. And ring. And ring.
That's the jumping off point in Sarah Ruhl's comedy, "Dead Man's Cell Phone," playing at Lyric Stage Company of Boston through November 14. The production is directed by the award-winning Carmel O'Reilly.
A native of County Fermanagh, Carmel originally came to the states in 1980 when her husband Peter, a native of Kildare, was working on a Ph.D. in engineering at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
She remembers: "When he completed his PhD., a job came up in Boston and we've been here ever since. We love Boston. Boston is our home."
Together, the couple founded Sugan Theatre Company, dedicated to introducing Boston audiences to contemporary Irish and Celtic plays that presented diverse perspectives of modern Ireland. While Carmel served as the company's Artistic Director, Peter handled the finances.
With Sugan on hiatus at the moment, Carmel's talents have been in demand with other theater companies. In addition to some recent work at Emerson College, she directed an acclaimed production of "Trojan Barbie" at American Repertory Theatre and also the Elliot Norton Award-winning production of Conor McPherson's ghost tale, "The Seafarer," at SpeakEasy Stage.
In "Dead Man's Cell Phone" the setting is a contemporary cafe. The first sound we hear is a cell phone ringing. A woman, slurping away at her bowl of soup, grows annoyed when the stranger sitting at an adjacent table refuses to pick up his phone. It continues to ring. When she can no longer stand it, she gets up to confront him. It turns out the phone's owner is ignoring the ringing because he had dropped dead right there at his table.
Despite the corpse in front of her, Jean, the nosy neighbor, is unable to resist. She HAS to answer that phone. And when she does, the impulsive gesture embeds her in the life of the deceased -- Gordon, a man she never met, and now never will.
She keeps the dead man's phone. "Gordon wanted me to have it," she lies. She goes to the dead man's funeral. "I loved him," she lies. She becomes the dead man's once-removed secretary, fielding his calls and spinning inspirational tales of his final moments. Even though she never met the man.
Carmel says of the black comedy, "What I love about Sarah Ruhl is that she's very playful in the theatrical sense. Her plays are a kind of invitation to us to join in an absurd and funny, different kind of experience in the theater. She plays with play structure. She plays with our expectation of characters and what they may or may not do. She's got a wonderful comedic sense. The play is funny in a whimsical, strange way."
Whether we chose to admit it or not, we all secretly wonder how we'll be remembered after we're gone. Here, a complete stranger takes on that responsibility. All of which is in keeping with Ruhl's ability to populate her surreal fantasies with very real but quirky people.
Carmel says with a knowing smile, "The characters are brushed with a 'soupcon' of irrationality, as are we all."
When Spiro Veloudous, Lyric's Producing Artistic Director, was putting his season schedule together, he knew he wanted Carmel to direct "Cell Phone." "I am a big fan of Carmel," he said. "Her work with the Sugan Theatre and with others, including her stunning production of "9 Parts of Desire" which she directed for us several years ago, made her an obvious choice for this play. ('Cell Phone') has four wonderful women's roles in it and is truly driven by them. It only seemed natural for a woman to guide this production."
Sarah Ruhl, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, has been quoted as saying her inspiration for the play came through observing people's appalling lack of cell phone manners. In an ironic collision of life and art, a cell phone went off during a recent performance at Lyric, despite the now-common pre-show announcement requesting that audience members respectfully turn off all "cell phones, watches and things that beep on the hour."
To add injury to insult, the person with the ringing cell phone nonchalantly took the call in the middle of the performance while fellow audience members sent visual daggers in her direction.
Carmel admits, "Our cell phones have become an extension of ourselves; they've become like another organ of the body."
She remembers seeing a very telling cartoon in The New Yorker not long ago that perfectly captured our electronic compulsions. In the drawing, a woman in a coffee shop is on the verge of hysteria as she frantically searches the cushions of a sofa for her missing cell phone. "She says, 'I've lost my talisman, my cell phone! My whole life is gone!'"
The play also examines what happens to our mindless cyber blatherings as they float off into the universe. "I happened to pass someone on the street the other day and the end of the call was, 'Okay, love ya.' [We're seeing] this sort of throwing away of meaning in itself . . . Where does language go? Where do words go? Language holds all our memories, language holds our history. It has its own archeological depth, if you like." In contrast to tossed off conversations, she adds, "When something is on a page and written, it lasts forever. It's a different kind of treasure."
In a world where we obsessively call and text and tweet, is Ms. Ruhl making a ghoulish judgment linking impersonal connection with awkward isolation? O'Reilly believes the playwright "doesn't say there's a right or wrong. Sarah Ruhl is very much about what it might be, or might not be. It might be this, it might be that. It raises tremendous questions, which is really the power of theater -- to ask questions."
"Dean Man's Cell Phone," Through November 14, Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street. 617-585-5678.