Philosophical question: If a play includes a character so annoying that it becomes unwatchable, is it still a good play?
This is the question posed, perhaps accidentally, in The Dead Man's Cell Phone, a characteristically weird romp from Pulitzer-nominated author Sarah Ruhl. In a nondescript café, a shy young woman named Jean (Polly Noonan) has just finished slurping up the last of her lobster bisque when a nearby diner's cell phone goes off. "Ha ha," she says to the man, laughing nervously. "Would you mind answering that?" But the diner, Gordon (Jim Ballard), cannot answer it, for he is dead. Jean commits the body to the authorities but claims the phone for herself and begins trying to make sense of Gordon's life and death — at first to his mistress, then to his family, and finally to his shadowy underworld business associates.
To do so, she is forced to tell a series of increasingly improbable lies about everything from her association with the deceased to his last words. It is a situation into which no conceivable flesh-and-blood person would ever insert herself, which poses a problem for any woman who takes the role. To wit: how to believably inhabit an unbelievable persona? Noonan took perhaps the only sensible route: Just go for it, with gusto. And to her credit, she makes Jean into a credible character, though perhaps that's not such a good thing. To sit at a family's dinner table, telling lies to the mother of a dead man you'd never even met just to satisfy your own misplaced desire for do-goodery — to do such a thing requires colossal neediness, colossal self-regard, and a truly eye-watering lack of self-awareness. Noonan takes on all these characteristics, and then you pay money to watch her exhibit them for a few hours.
I'm all for "challenging" theater. I'm just not convinced the challenge should lie in not ripping off your ears every time an actress opens her mouth. Jean squirms and simpers and stalls and squirms some more before every little fib, and she does it all in a horrible squeak of a voice.
Jean's nauseating existence is made somewhat palatable by a lovely all-white set from scene designer Sean McClelland and an ensemble cast of SoFla's finest. Those who play Gordon's family and associates — Antonio Amadeo, Erin Joy Schmidt, Deborah L. Sherman, and especially Barbara Bradshaw — deliver inspired performances that make you wonder what a marvelous little family drama this could have been if only Gordon had set his phone to "vibrate" when sitting down to eat.
While The Dead Man's Cell Phone is a story of great dramatic heft burdened with one excessively quirky character, The Weir is almost the opposite. Enjoying its South Florida premiere at Palm Beach Dramaworks, The Weir is a play of moods, with drama as diffuse as smoke.
There is no arc to Conor McPherson's play, no thematic unity, and the story is skeletal. Basically: Louts in small-town Ireland have just gathered in a tavern when in comes the town's most prosperous resident, a real estate salesman named Finbar (Dennis Creaghan); and a young lady, Valerie (Lena Kaminsky), to whom he just sold a house. The old photographs lining the tavern walls get the men talking, and soon they are trading ghost stories. They worry about frightening Valerie, but they shouldn't: She soon tops them all with a story of personal terror that sends them shivering out into the wintry Irish night.
Like McPherson's previous effort with Shining City, The Weir leaves audiences rattled, moved, but vaguely unsatisfied. We wonder: What was that about? It is a question with no real answer. The Weir is like a slice-of-life vignette. Its life or death lies in how exquisitely a company can wring authenticity and feeling out of small, almost silent moments of human transaction. And Dramaworks' constant director, J. Barry Lewis, wrings well. All of his actors, with one unfortunate exception, take to the stage as though they're excerpting a single evening from lives lived far beyond the theater door. The town's hidden history seems to whisper in the walls of Michael Amico's dark wood set, and Valerie, the town's newest resident, seems to hear it. The others are inured, including: windy, drunken Jack (Frank Converse); the scrappy, solicitous bartender, Brendan (Declan Mooney); shy Jim (Karl Hanover); and gregarious Finbar. They have lived here a long time and are used to haunts. More than anything else, they project a sense of normality and calm that rubs raw against their tales of malicious fairies and dead women on staircases. Lewis doubles the incongruity by taking McPherson's dialogue as written, conversational and imperfect, full of stammers and cross-talk.
McPherson's naturalistic dialogue is what grounds his ghostly narratives in the imaginations of his audience. Which is why Converse's Jack is such a problem. Though a longtime vet of stage and screen, Converse fails to negotiate the choppy rhythms of McPherson's patter. McPherson's style is classic bar lout; Converse's is Shakespearean high speech. He is a declaimer and a harrumpher, and though he tries to get into the groove, he can't help but insert tiny, would-be dramatic pauses before almost every line.
Each time Converse bungles The Weir's rhythm, the play suffers a minor derailment, which must rankle anyone intimately involved in the production. Audiences, however, may find it a relief. In a tavern so dark, on a night so haunted, it is comforting to have even this clumsy reminder that The Weir is only a play.