It took me about 20 minutes to figure it out on Friday night as a talented cast took Sarah Ruhl's quirky comedy, Dead Man's Cell Phone, out for a spin on Raleigh Little Theatre's smaller second stage, the Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre.
What happened was this: Kate Tonner had just brayed out a funeral eulogy unlike any we'll ever encounter, playing Mrs. Gottlieb, the boorish mother of Gordon, the deceased title character. Self-absorbed, intemperate and revealingly human, it was the rhetorical equivalent of a fart in a pulpit: ill-timed, perhaps, but clearly needful—and bitingly funny. Surprisingly though, Tonner's achievement garnered comparatively meager applause; it may have bested that mezzanine of crickets in a certain Daffy Duck cartoon from yesteryear, but not by much.
That was when it hit me: I was in an asynchronous audience. In the same room Actors Comedy Lab was presenting an edgy and fully serviceable modern comedy, a crowd had all but seemingly gathered for a production of Bleak House instead.
If that's an exaggeration, it isn't off by much. The production wasn't flawless, but it was hard not to conclude that Tonner and company were working awfully hard for too few laughs. Why was the audience that uncomfortable? Perhaps a clue is in the script.
Ruhl's elliptical text centers on the lies that lubricate "polite" society. But it also references another kind of fabrication: the type that hides the sources of indispensable modern conveniences.
We learn that Gordon (an engaging Stanley Amditis) trafficked human body parts from the Third World to the First before he died (with all of his organs conspicuously still on board). But his real work, he claimed, was providing consumers with plausible deniability of an unconscionable corruption. "If you make people feel good," he concludes, "you're a good man."
At one point, Gordon is joined in his one-man purgatory (which resembles the cafe where he died) by his supposed soul mate, Jean (Morrisa Nagel), a slightly too-considerate woman who answers his cell phone at his time of death—and then takes it as her mission to comfort his kin and less-than-loved ones with untruths about his final feelings. Gordon notes that he and Jean have one talent: "compassionate obfuscation," a realization that sends Jean desperately scrambling for an exit from his afterlife.
Under Rod Rich's crisp direction, Nagel's Jean ultimately seems an awkward soul who seizes on a chance to deeply connect with other people, albeit through a scam. Her dubious improvisations and continuing amendments to Gordon's last words increasingly get her in over her head. Amditis' work is sharp as Gordon (and his twin brother, Dwight), while Tracey Phillips' icy take on Hermia, Gordon's widow, rewardingly melts into boozy regrets in a late-night bar. Amy Bossi-Nasiatka tosses off supporting cameos as a hard-as-nails mistress and a courier from a different sort of underworld.
Thomas Mauney's kicky yet minimal early '60s retro set is complemented by similarly stylish video montages from director Rich and John Maruca and a droll soundtrack from Todd Houseknecht. On the other hand, a stylized dance routine by the stage crew (which is in Ruhl's script) adds little to the proceedings.
But for the most, this Dead Man's Cell Phone has a perfectly good signal. What it mainly needs is to figure out how to invite an audience to pick up and answer it.