Jean says, “I never had a cellphone. I didn’t want to be there, you know. Like if your phone is on you’re supposed to be there. Sometimes I like to disappear. But it’s like — when everyone has their cellphones on, no one is there. It’s like we’re all disappearing the more we’re there.”
This brand of talk/think is Ruhl’s signature, a kind of up-to-theminute, self-conscious stream-of-consciousness. That may be one reason her work quickly found its way from a Master of Fine Arts program at Brown University to a Pulitzer Prize nomination for drama in 2005 for The Clean House (about a Brazilian maid who is obsessed with finding the perfect joke, although she is convinced it will kill her). Ruhl won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006 at 32, and In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play), her Broadway debut, opened last fall to positive reviews.
Donavon compared Ruhl’s work to that of another playwright. “Neil Simon is master of one-liners — he just keeps them coming. Even a quiet moment is often broken by a laugh line. Sarah Ruhl, on the other hand, layers in the funny lines with everything else. It’s almost seamless the way she embeds humor, throws you off balance.” The fact that the main character, Jean, is kept off balance, “makes the audience feel a little off balance, too. In a good way.”
Ruhl’s world is full of characters who are at once eccentric but real; her comedies are illogical, truthful, and deeply human. Another key to Ruhl’s success may be the range of her subject matter: Dead Man’s Cell Phone is about communication; The Clean House explores the nature of domestic life and comedy; Passion Play: A Cycle follows the politics of religion from the Elizabethan age to the Reagan years; and In the Next Room takes on the treatment of women’s “hysteria” in the late 1800s.
Donavon thinks that Santa Fe audiences will really connect (so to speak) with Dead Man’s Cell Phone. “First of all, on the surface, it’s just very entertaining. I laughed out loud when I read it. It’s a funny, oddball play, and Santa Fe is just a quirky kind of place, isn’t it?
“The more I began to read the play and work with the actors, however, I began to see other layers. There is a really strong, metaphysical component to this play, which I think Santa Feans will relate to as well. I think people will come out of this play entertained but also talking about some of the ideas in the play, how the more things we have to deal with — cellphones, Facebook, Twitter, texting — may help us communicate at the speed of sound, but that doesn’t mean we’re communicating better or more clearly. Because we’re not seeing each other face to face,” she said, “the physicality of communication gets lost. We get isolated, even with all these devices.”