Patrons of Palo Alto Players' production of "Dead Man's Cell Phone" by Sarah Ruhl encountered both of those curveballs last Sunday afternoon. The 2:30 p.m. curtain was delayed for an hour because Mary Waterfield got caught in traffic.
Some audience members, understandably, bailed. But the many who stayed proved to be the right audience for Ruhl's quirky play about what happens when the expected is upended, only to be replaced by the surprise of lyricism and magic. Their normal routine (which includes shows starting on time) was disrupted, and their reward for sticking it out was a heady dose of Ruhl's lyricism and a hint of the magic her writing can conjure.
To be quite frank, director Lennon Smith's production misses a lot of the visual poetry and surging melancholy of Ruhl's script, but much of the humor survives, even if it's muddled in tone. Ruhl's plays — like "The Clean House," produced by TheatreWorks in 2006 — are tricky to be sure. She blends the world we know with magic realism and flights of fancy. She has a fascination with death and the afterlife, but her plays are astonishingly lively.
Lennon aims for broad comedy in this production, which works only some of the time. The tone veers from the comic to the near-tragic to the fantastical, and the actors have a tough time keeping pace with the shifts. It would help if set designer Patrick Klein and lighting designer Matthew Johns provided more than the basics. The script calls for an Act 2 "cell phone ballet" during a brief stopover in purgatory that depicts all the disembodied voices unleashed into the universe by our constant nattering on cell phones. But that moment of sublime chaos is missing here.
So is any sort of quirky soundscape. George Mauro provides some nice projections to help establish a sense of place (especially effective is the stained glass he conjures for a funeral in a cathedral), but his sound design is prosaic at best. He underscores the curtain calls with Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You," which would indicate a lack of connection to Ruhl's darker romantic leanings and her insistence that the world is suffering from a lack of human interaction, even amid our many means of digital connection.
As Jean, the nearly invisible woman whose life is forever altered by answering a dead man's cell phone, Waterfield makes some interesting choices. Jean is meant to be a nondescript entity who wanders through her life alone. She's 40-ish, works at a Holocaust museum and has no significant relationships.
When, by sheer chance, she answers the ringing phone of the dead guy at the next table, she inadvertently opens herself to life — its terrors and its treasures. On the terror side is the dead guy's nefarious business. He made his living doing something horribly immoral, and Jean gets caught up in some of that.
But she also gets sucked into the dead guy's — Gordon's — family. His imperious mother (the entertaining Monica Cappucini) has little patience for modern life, especially the constant ringing of cell phones. His widow, Hermia (Jeannie Naughton), is an uptight shrew who gets to cut loose and show her more vulnerable side in an Act 2 drunk scene, and his brother, Dwight (Daniel Trecroci), finds an unlikely love in Jean.
Which brings us back to Jean. Rather than being a bland everywoman who sparks to life when she answers a dead stranger's cell phone, Waterfield plays Jean as a kook with a little-girl voice and sense of style straight out of kindergarten (complete with a ponytail sprouting from the side of her head).
This doesn't leave a lot of room for Jean's evolution. Waterfield is fairly one-note, but she does have charm, especially in her sweetly romantic scenes with Trecroci as Dwight. Jean does a lot of lying to try to make Gordon seem like a better man than he actually was, but Waterfield never lets us see the depth underneath Jean's manipulation.
After a strong start in Act 2 with a diverting monologue by Gordon (the perfectly pitched Paul Jennings) filled with musings about the day he died, Ruhl stumbles along to an ineffective ending. She diverts the action to Johannesburg, which strains even the most generous shred of credibility, and then lingers too long in a sort of heaven where Jean and Gordon ramble about love and connection.
The forced happy ending feels rushed and only vaguely connected to the philosophically thorny, surprisingly amusing first act. Ruhl even aims for goofy action-movie violence when Jean gets into a fight with a blond stranger (Larissa Garcia) in an airport, but the tepid fight choreography here makes it even goofier than necessary.
Clearly Ruhl didn't know where to go after purgatory, so she hauls out death, fire, carnivores and true love as she fumbles around for a conclusion. This botched ending, amid so much wonderful writing, only emphasizes the fact that when "Dead Man's Cell Phone" is dealing with our digital isolation does it begin to ring true.
What: "Dead Man's Cell Phone" by Sarah Ruhl, presented by Palo Alto Players
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through Sept. 26 with 8 p.m. shows Thursday through Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Cost: Tickets are $30 with student and senior discounts.
Info: Go to www.paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.