‘Cell Phone’ has a delightful ring

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After you die, the body may decay, but your ring tone lives on in Sarah Ruhl’s winsomely askew comedy “Dead Man’s Cell

Phone,” a world premiere at Woolly Mammoth directed with a sure hand by Rebecca Bayla Taichman, who deftly balances the satire, whimsy and sheer poetry of the piece.

The play begins with an all-too-familiar scenario. A woman (Polly Noonan) sits in a quiet cafe (rendered like a gleaming mausoleum in Neil Patel’s celestial set) sipping soup, reading and reveling in the solitude when a man’s cell phone goes off at the next table. It rings and rings and rings until, exasperated, she rises up to ream out the guy (Rick Foucheux as Gordon) only to find out he has gone on to that unlimited roaming in the sky.

Gordon’s cell phone, on the other hand, vibrates and burbles with life. Jean decides to answer it, and with that simple, reflexive action becomes enmeshed in his messy, often mysterious former life. “It was your mother,” she whispers respectfully to the recently departed stiff. With every phone call, the demure and tentative Jean gets bolder and more involved in a life that bears little resemblance to her own.

We know little about Jean except that she works in a Holocaust museum and loves books, stationery and paper goods, caressing the various sheaves as if they are cool flesh. Pretty soon, she’s telling comforting tall tales to Gordon’s wacko family, consoling his tempestuous, Evita-like mistress (Jennifer Mendenhall) with an extemporaneous declaration of love she attributes to him, and delving into the trade of trafficking in human organs — which turns out to be the deceased’s nefarious line of work.

This is an irresistible setup for physical comedy and wordplay, which Miss Ruhl concocts in abundance. Unfortunately, the screwball setup does not come to a satisfying conclusion, as the play gracefully putters out in a sentimental, Hollywood-style ending.

Yet any hint of morbidity concerning the deadly subject matter is banished by such nuggety moments as when Gordon’s mother, Mrs. Gottlieb (Sarah Marshall),stands up at the funeral in her sunglasses, big hat and salt-and-pepper helmet of hair and requests a hymn — strains of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” rise up — and then launches into a blisteringly funny rant against cell phones that says, among other things, that “yeah, we will never walk alone because there’s a machine in our pants that never stops ringing.”

Mrs. Gottlieb is a pip of a character, a genuine eccentric who eats huge slabs of meat at every meal, says exactly what’s on her mind — she tells Jean she reminds her of “a very small casserole” — and nearly crumbles with grief over the death of her son. “When someone older than you dies, it gets better every day,” she says. “When someone younger than you dies, every day is worse.” Miss Marshall’s quirky inflections and deeply rooted sense of the absurd are equally effective in the play’s comedic and more poignant moments.

Equally quixotic is Naomi Jacobson’s masterful Hermia, Gordon’s widow, whose “hygienically sealed for your safety” demeanor is wittily reinforced by a stiff ‘60s flip hairdo and black dress. A couple of martinis later, the starch has gone out of her hair and her skirts as she gleefully regales Jean with stories of role-playing in her marital relations with her dead husband.

Mr. Foucheux’s Gordon, by the way, returns for a walloping second-act speech, spewing bile and bitterness — among other things, he’s ticked that on the last day of his life, he was denied lobster bisque — that reveals he must have been quite a piece of work in life.

“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is about death and remembrance and how remembering the dead changes us. It is also about our apparently bottomless need for attention. Chron-ic dependence on the cell phone is a way to feed that craving, which Jean finds out as she goes from Luddite to addict who cuts short a post-coital cuddle with Gordon’s sweet and soulful brother Dwight (an endearing Bruce Nelson) to answer the siren’s call of the cell.

The dead want to be immortalized in some way, and this desire for recognition is shared by the living. Miss Noonan’s oddball Jean is both naive and clever, to the point where you don’t know how much of her reticence is real and how much is artifice. Her Jean is a peculiarly compelling creation, part mousy woman and part impetuous voyeur who feeds off the lives of others, and Miss Ruhl gives her the play’s most poetic and urgent speeches.

With “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” Miss Ruhl seems to suggest that it is only by hanging up that we can really begin to hear what everyone is saying.

****

WHAT: “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” by Sarah Ruhl

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