Playwrights' Verizons

Hosted by

This is James Taylor with Theater Talk.

No single playwright or actor has affected theatergoing in America over the last ten years as much as the cellular phone. Stage plays have been performed in this country for centuries with the rituals observed between audience and actors remaining pretty much the same; but in the last decade, barely any play or musical can start without a brief prologue or overture reminding people to shut off their cell phones.

In many productions these days, this announcement is woven into the performance or spoken by one of the characters. At a recent staging of Macbeth I attended, the young woman asking the crowd to silence their phones was stabbed by one of Macbeth's henchman before finishing her request. The audience howled with delight. What would Shakespeare, no stranger to adding topical bits to win over a crowd, think of this curtain-raising addition to his tragedy? Sadly, he hasn't returned my texts.

It was only a matter of time then before playwrights started incorporating cell phones into their work. Over the years, mobile phones and blackberries have made cameos in contemporary plays; but only in the past year has the cell phone gotten marquee treatment.

dead_mans_cellphone.jpg Last June, Washington D.C. hosted the world premiere of Dead Man's Cell Phone. Written by Sarah Ruhl, a 2005 Pulitzer finalist, Dead Man's Cell Phone is about…well, take a guess? A woman named Jean sits in a café finishing a bowl of lobster bisque when the cell phone of a man at the next table starts to ring. As it keeps going off, she realizes he's no longer breathing. She calls 911 and the play follows her as she holds on to the phone, becoming the dead man's personal answering service.

Like many of Ruhl's plays, Dead Man's Cell Phone is a quirky look at modern life, with a brief stop in the afterlife and plenty of meandering whimsy. The play showcases Ruhl's singular voice, but it also dials up a few interesting ideas about the way cell phones keep people connected, at the same time they keep us apart. Dead Man's Cell Phone recent played Off Broadway (with Mary Louise Parker as Jean) but as of yet, there are no plans for it to be staged here in Los Angeles.

Ruhl's play will be published in book form next month, but for those who don't like to be put on hold, a tiny theater in Hollywood is staging another new play with a very similar title and plot. John Patrick Tanner's Cell Phone Funeral may sound like a knock off, but within a few minutes it's clear that the playwright hasn't seen Ruhl's play. After an hour, you start to wonder if he's seen any recent American plays.

cell_phone_funeral.jpgCell Phone Funeral is little more than a concept, crudely sketched out in nine rough scenes: a closeted gay man is killed in West Hollywood and his family, using his cell phone to contact his friends, slowly begin to learn about his lifestyle. Tanner's script has almost no interest in themes, symbolism or grace notes of any kind. Cell Phone Funeral was clearly written quickly just to get it on stage. There are a few chuckles to be had, usually gags involving the dead man's sex toys (that would have been a more accurate title) but the only notable aspect of the play is how completely off the grid it is.

dmc-book.jpg If Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone represents the cutting edge of American commercial theater—its Bluetooth, if you will—then Cell Phone Funeral is the theatrical equivalent of two tin cans tied together with string.

Cell Phone Funeral runs at the Actor's Playpen through May 17; Dead Man's Cell Phone, published by Theatre Communications Group, arrives in bookstores June 15.

This is James Taylor with Theater Talk for KCRW.