Organic Theater Pittsburgh has made a lively debut in an impressively performed play. It's Dead Man's Cell Phone by acclaimed, prolific Sarah Ruhl, whose work has been seen on Broadway and in other significant places.
Attention must be paid because Ruhl reminds us that the artificial life in our hands -- that small communication device to which our eyes, ears and minds are so affixed -- diminishes real connections with people we know and care about, leaching away our limited time in a world we'll leave behind. Downloaded into Hell, we should not be surprised that no signal can reach us from the heavens.
Along with that basic message, Ruhl gives lots of goofy reasons to laugh at fully fleshed-out characters, filling in their actions and thoughts with clever, quirky details.
Jean, a good soul, works at a Holocaust museum. Finding Gordon Gottlieb sitting, dead, over a bowl of lentil soup, she answers his insistently ringing cell phone and gets linked to his unsavory past life. Because she believes in showing kindness to strangers, Jean calls on Gordon's mistress, wife, mother and brother, investing Gordon with posthumous sainthood. But, inevitably, she confuses urgent ringing with more significant priorities and finds herself in a holding zone at the entrance to Hell, where Ruhl riffs on Sartre-like ideas.
Jaime Slavinsky invests Jean with wonderful vulnerability and, when Jean's life pulses in many directions, Slavinsky's every touch works. As Gordon's mother, Deborah Wein has all the right edges. Michael Moats' relaxed panache as Gordon makes natural and colorful the fulcrum of the action. And Adam Kukic's interpretation of Gordon's overshadowed brother, Dwight, conveys the sweet dimensions of a gentle person well matched with Jean's tender side.
Ricardo Vila-Roger has directed with fine insight, keeping the multi-dimensional satire well paced yet never overplayed, even during switches in and out of real time and place. Slavinsky has also contributed imaginative projections as part of her simple set design, working well in a small playing space.
Despite Ruhl's skewering of our addiction to cell phones, at opening-night intermission, five or six people in the audience immediately touched their plastic appliances instead of conversing with people next to them.
DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE continues through Sun., July 31. ModernFormations Gallery & Performance Space, 4919 Penn Ave., Garfield. 412-480-1379 or www.brownpapertickets.com