A discussion about applying lipstick in public with a stranger (Miriam A. Laube) persuades Jean (Sarah Agnew) to give it a try in “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” which opened Sunday at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. - Jenny Graham.

The more we're here, the more we disappear

It would be unfair to call Sarah Ruhl's "Dead Man's Cell Phone" high concept. Sure, the story is pretty much right there in the title, but Ruhl's lonely characters inhabit a world that is anything but mainstream.

A man and a woman, each alone, sit in a quiet cafe. His phone rings and rings. In the hero's journey, this is what's known as the Call.

Dead guys — for that's what the phone's owner, Gordon, is — don't answer phones. So the woman, Jean (Sarah Agnew), impulsively answers it and changes her life.

Ruhl, 34, has had a meteoric rise. Mentored by playwright and teacher Paula Vogel, Ruhl was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005 for "The Clean House" (which OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch directed at Yale Rep and the Lincoln Center) and was awarded a MacArthur "genius grant" in 2006. She is a converted poet, and it shows in her dialogue, and even in her stage directions.

After several earlier productions, "Dead Man's Cell Phone" opened Sunday in the OSF's New Theatre, directed by Christopher Liam Moore. It is the perfect New Theatre play: small (half a dozen characters, two hours), charming and quirky. Despite some cosmic trappings, it is lean almost to the point of being slight.

Ruhl's world springs to convincing life in Christopher Acebo's spare set and Lonnie Alcaraz's moody lights, causing a cafe to morph into a church, an airport in South Africa, a celestial Elsewhere.

Composer and sound designer Paul James Prendergast has created a din of cell phone babble emanating from Earth and heading at light speed into interstellar space. It's a little spooky to realize that somebody or something, one day when humans are long gone, may still be able to hear this stuff. The effect is emblematic of our connectedness — and our isolation.

Mouseburger Jean is brought to sympathetic life by Agnew, who is not a particularly small woman, but who has the ability to make herself appear to shrink into the space she occupies.

"You're a very small casserole," the dead man's mother tells her.

Jean works in a Holocaust museum and loves paper, an iconic, pre-digital substance. When she goes to the dead man's funeral, she crosses a threshold into a special world with new rules.

Agnew has a lot of wonderful business wrestling with the bag and the ratty umbrella she carries along with the unfamiliar cell phone, which she keeps. It is a marvelous performance.

Jean meets Gordon's estranged mother, Mrs. Gottlieb (the fire-breathing Catherine E. Coulson), who scolds people about using their cell phones in the bathroom and offers vegetarians meat, lots of meat.

Jean meets the Other Woman Stranger (Miriam A. Laube, vamping her way through a cartoon role), Gordon's troubled wife, Hermia (a funny Terri McMahon), and his doofus brother, Dwight (an earnest/goofy Brent Hinkley). Each character is a comic grotesque, and each wants to know what Jean's relationship with Gordon was.

She worked with him, she says.

"Incoming or outgoing?" she's asked.

"Incoming," she says.

Gordon was involved in an unsavory, probably dangerous business, and Jean finds herself getting sucked into it. She makes up nice final words for Gordon to have said about each of his loved ones, which seems to make everybody feel better.

The caustic Gordon (Jeffrey King) puts in a post-mortem appearance, and King delivers an amazing seriocomic monologue that brings down the house.

At the center of "Cell Phone" is a paradox. Jean, who sometimes likes to disappear, tells us that cell phones require us to be present. But the more attention we pay to our electronic gizmos, the less present we are.

"It's like we're all disappearing the more we're there," Jean says.

Well, that's been said before, here and there.

Things get surreal, and a little confusing, when Jean joins Gordon in, well, Elsewhere. Delightfully drawn characters engaged in loopy talk about metaphysical subjects have a way of lending an air of profundity to what may after all be mere cleverness. "Cell Phone" wavers a bit near the end as it shifts back and forth from the cosmic to the romantic. Will girl get boy?

The wandering ending muddies the play's effect. It is confusing enough to have prompted an audience to burst into applause only to realize a moment later that, oops, the play wasn't over. This is one of those rare productions that's been perfectly cast, and in which the great design and technical stuff exist not for their own sake but in service to the illumination of theme and character. You'd think a writer as careful about words as Ruhl would tighten that ending a bit.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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