Sarah Ruhl is a young American playwright who's been honored with a MacArthur "genius" grant, profiled by the New Yorker, and short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize. Her 2008 play Dead Man's Cell Phone tackles a recognizably Ruhlian theme: The Scary Implications of Modern Life, approached this time through the titular cell phone, found by a thirtysomething woman on the corpse of a stranger in a city cafe. From there things get deep and loopy, as our accidental heroine finds herself drawn further and further into the mysterious world of the dead stranger—a world she enters through a well-intentioned act of dishonesty and ultimately flees in moral horror. Despite the darkness, Dead Man's Cell Phone plays out like a fantasia, and the play's realistic landscape lights up with bold bits of magic (most notably, an extended sequence in an afterlife Laundromat).
Giving Dead Man's Cell Phone its Seattle premiere is ArtsWest, the ambitious West Seattle company with a hit-and-miss record of making good on its ambitions. (In other words, a typical theater company.) Claiming directing duties is Carol Roscoe, an ArtsWest veteran who keeps the fantasia flowing and brings to the stage two dynamite performances. As the dead man's mother, Julie Jamieson executes a pitch-perfect comedic performance of epic proportions; her imperious matron is a living, breathing icon and a perfect example of the heightened naturalism Ruhl calls for. Also winning: Peggy Gannon, who nails the role of the stranger's widow with a similar stylistic precision.
But lost out front is Emily Grogan as our would-be heroine, who gives one of the more distracting lead performances I've seen. Perhaps aiming for the heightened style so expertly executed by Jamieson and Gannon, Grogan produces a one-note dud in a role that should be quietly kaleidoscopic. (Off Broadway, the role was played by Mary-Louise Parker.) Barking out her lines in a declamatory style reminiscent of Alice addressing the Mad Hatter, or a substitute teacher addressing a class of kindergartners, the woefully miscast and misdirected Grogan leaves a hole in the center of the play, ultimately sinking the production.