Theatre  has produced consistently intriguing productions of recent and relevant plays since its inaugural season in 2011. Their list of produced playwrights is growing into a Who’s Who of younger award-winning dramatists: Annie Baker, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, Jordan Harrison, Rajiv Joseph, Marco Ramirez, Mat Smart. Top-notch acting and directing and thoughtful design have been their hallmarks. And now the young company, which opened its third season Friday with a sold-out performance of Sarah Ruhl’s dark comedy “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” has made a game-changing statement about its production level ambitions and technical fluency, too.
Directed by co-artistic director Gil Reyes, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” takes a silly premise — taking messages for a man when his phone keeps ringing after he dies — and turns it into a surgically precise inquiry into the metaphysically messy nature of connectivity and love. Susan Brooks is entirely committed in her riveting performance as Jean, a shrinking violet who, in a single spontaneous moment, answers a stranger’s ringing phone in a café and then keeps it. The man, as the title says, is dead.
Jean has a big heart, and so as she answers the phone, she finds herself challenged to comfort the man’s survivors: his imperious mother (Becky LeCron), second fiddle brother Dwight (Ryan Lash), neurotic widow Hermia (Dara Tiller) and even his femme fatale mistress (Beth Tantanella). And when we meet him — Gordon Gottlieb (Robert McFarland) — later, we learn all of the good intentions Jean has tried to create for him, post-mortem, are not and are deserved.
When Jean embarks on a serious redemptive mission on Gordon’s behalf, the play leaps even further into surreal territory. Tonally, this is a difficult play to put hands around, but Reyes has marshaled all of his resources to move in concert. The dark absurdity of Gordon’s career and family life are balanced by Jean’s naiveté and pure intentions — after all, she works at the Holocaust Museum, because she thinks things should be remembered. The clash between her romantic ideals and the reality of Gordon and his life is deadly funny, but the humor, even when biting, isn’t mean — at least not to Jean. Thanks to Brooks’ performance, we never feel she’s foolish for trying to do the things she’s done.
Under Reyes’ direction, the cast also walks that dangerous line between farcical and sincere in their performances. This production introduced me to two actors I hadn’t seen in full productions yet (Tiller and Lash), a reminder that Louisville’s wells of talent run deep. Their pitch-perfect portrayals — brittle, needy, quick-tongued — were in a way the tonal backbone of the play, allowing Tantanella’s vampy mistress to soften the hard edges periodically (a nice touch of irony from Ms. Ruhl). LeCron really shines in roles like Mrs. Gottlieb, where she can swing wildly between heartbroken and ferocious. McFarland imbues Gordon with a louche feline energy, adding a whole new dimension to the character as written.
“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is being staged in The Baron’s Theater, a renovated former magician’s theater upstairs in Whiskey Row Lofts. It’s a jewel box of a space — small but well-appointed, and with a built-in intimacy that not all small spaces boast. It wouldn’t work for a production of “Oklahoma!” — you couldn’t squeeze a substantial chorus onto the bite-sized proscenium stage — but thanks to the careful direction and design, it’s perfect for Ruhl’s complex, heartful farce that takes Jean from one location to the next in search of mysterious Gordon and his survivors.
The single-set production has become for many theaters the gold standard — and if that single set could be a living room, so much the better, because even the most budget-constrained company can scrounge up a couch. But for playwrights, expansive imaginations sometimes need some room to move. That can put plays with multiple settings (“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” alone covers a lot of ground, from a café to the Johannesburg airport to … somewhere beyond) out of the reach of fledgling companies that lack the financial means to design complicated working sets, let alone execute stage directions that call for magical metaphorical design effects. ’s technical artists — scenic designer Karl Anderson, sound designer Scott Anthony and lighting designer Jesse AlFord — rose to the challenge admirably, creating a nimble set that can transform effectively into all of the locations and yet is still right-sized for the stage, and coloring that set with the right tones in every scene. Their poetic end of Act One left me just a tiny bit gutted, and eagerly anticipating the end of intermission. If Theatre ’s first season was a warning shot and their second season a building year, this production announces that the company really means business, and their shows are not to be missed.
“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” runs through June 29 in the Baron’s Theater (131 W. Main St.).