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Sarah Ruhl’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone’ is a darkly funny, quirky adventure

Western New York theatergoers have taken a liking to Sarah Ruhl.

Works by the young, contemporary playwright have been well-received by local audiences over the past year. “In the Next Room: The Vibrator Play” and “The Clean House” triggered talk and praise and considerable post-play discussion.

Now along comes another Ruhl work, 2007’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” just opened at Hamburg’s Buffalo Laboratory Theatre. It’s darkly funny and open for debate.

Jean – mousy but nice, shy, naïve, possibly an inspiration for the admonition “Get a life!” – is having a quiet lunch at a café. A table or two away, a cellphone rings. And rings. A man at the table makes no move to answer. Exasperated, Jean decides to see what’s wrong. The man is leaning to one side. He is, apparently, dead. His phone continues to jingle. Jean answers. “Gordon? No, he can’t come to the phone right now.”

So begins a quirky adventure for Jean as she immerses herself into the dead Gordon’s life by taking his calls, a sudden secretary of sorts, canceling appointments, notifying contacts of his demise, calling the family, of course, gradually learning about this man she didn’t know in life but is suddenly intrigued with in death. The day, and those to follow, soon turn into times of astonishment, surprise, horror, danger and mystery.

Jean meets Gordon’s family, making up details on the fly, fabricating “last words” to the icy, domineering mother; an emotionless widow, Hermia; an introverted brother, Dwight – dysfunctional eccentrics all. There’s a mistress, too, an unlikable sex kitten. Jean measures family needs and relates fake and flowery Gordon sentiments to each. They respond in kind: “He said that? Why, that Gordon. He never said that he loved us before. Thanks, Jean,” they say. More phone calls. Seems Gordon was involved in some shady business: international human organ smuggling. Jean carries on. Too late to turn back.

So “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is all about being connected and disconnected, the ubiquitous tool following us to where we should be or maybe not be. Where are you? Technology uniting us … or is it isolation? Playwright Ruhl goes to great lengths to explain her theories, and the story goes everywhere and nowhere at once. Mom rants; Hermia – a Shakespearean tie-in here? – bares her soul to the cleansing Jean; nerdy Dwight loves Jean; and, fibbing again, she inventively solves sibling rivalry.

The tale wanders into heaven and returns. Jean, still comforting (at the risk of life and limb), still a mediator, even meets up with the dead Gordon in a dream. There are too many off-the-wall themes, too much whimsy, too much anything goes. Yet Ruhl’s comments on religion and ritual are sly and hilarious. Still, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” limps to an unsatisfying conclusion. We get it: Everyone has secrets. It’s a given.

Taylor Doherty directs, and he has two BLT actors that can save any show – Katie White and David Hayes – and they do. White, always superb, plays the Innocent Abroad. She’s waifish, vulnerable, easily appalled but a quick-witted survivor with a knack for doing and saying the right thing. That’s her Jean. Wonderful work. The always-nuanced Hayes, happily joining the BLT company for the first time, does double-duty as the stricken Gordon – whom we learn much about in a flashback – and dorky Dwight. Steady as always, Hayes nails both characters. Near flawless work by two excellent pros.

The cast includes Hilary Walker, fine, albeit nearly inaudible; BLT staple Anne Kurtis; and another stellar import, Diane DiBernardo-Blenk, as Hermia.

The set is bare-bones, but there is near-genius work by BLT tech phenom Steven Fox, designer of a huge and central cellphone, complete with working icons and a variety of sounds and videos that speed “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” along – an impetus it sorely needs.

Director Doherty has the cast and the set. Ruhl’s nomadic story doesn’t help.