Opening Nights: A Luddite’s Manifesto, and More

Piecing together a life through a cell phone. Also, relive the housing bubble and an elephant lynching.

PICK: Dead Man's Cell PhoneArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. S.W., 938-0339,  artswest.org. $10–$32. 7:30 p.m. Wed.–Sat., 3 p.m. Sun. Ends Oct. 3.A brilliant play with an awful title, Dead Man's Cell Phone debuted last year in New York City with Mary-Louise Parker (Weeds) in the lead role of Jean, a woman who witnesses the abrupt death of a 30-something man named Gordon in a cafe. When Gordon passes away, Jean is eating lobster bisque, a lunch choice we later learn he was extremely envious of. It takes Jean awhile to realize that Gordon—frozen at his table with a warm smile on his face—is dead. Once she figures out what's what, she starts answering his cell phone, puts it in her purse as Gordon's corpse is hauled away, and then proceeds to learn about his life through family and acquaintances who make post-mortem attempts to reach him. In an effort to console each of these individuals, she concocts well-intentioned fibs about Gordon's final moments that make them all feel as though he cared for them more than he actually did.In ArtsWest's snappy production of this black-as-coal comedy, Emily Grogan stars as Jean, the sober center around which a dazzling array of comedic talents flit and flourish. Grogan, while solid, could stand to sharpen her delivery to catch up to the likes of Julie Jamieson, who steals every scene she's in as Gordon's hilariously loopy mother. And Mike Dooly, still and silent for the entire first half of the two-hour play (he's dead, after all), kicks off the second half with a powerhouse 10-minute monologue that reveals a slimy—albeit plenty entertaining—side that Jean is, at that juncture, unaware of.At the core of Sarah Ruhl's clever script is a disdain for the go-go age of technology, of which the cell phone is an emblem—a luddite's manifesto of sorts that most vividly reveals itself in a scene about Jean and Gordon's brother Dwight's love for embossed stationery and, in turn, one another. Their romance, on its face, seems ludicrous, but Ruhl's script is engaging enough to overcome whatever sense of disbelief accompanies the production's zanier plot points. Ruhl's is the best kind of playwriting, really: exceptionally intelligent without ever sounding like the words on the page are too grandiose to come out of an everyday human's mouth. MIKE SEELYElephant's GraveyardBalagan Theatre, 1117 E. Pike St., 800-838-3006,  balagantheatre.org. $12–$20. 8 p.m. Thurs.–Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Sept. 26.In 1916, a circus came to the tiny town of Erwin, Tennessee. Elephant's Graveyard tells what happened there, and I emphasize the word "tells." The 13 actors—representing the townspeople, the circus members, and the train engineer—literally sit or stand around the stage introducing themselves, and then narrate the story directly to the audience. There is minimal character interaction, almost no discernible blocking, and very little non-expositional dialogue. Although the situation they describe has some compelling elements and even centers around a motivated conflict (the town's decision to lynch an elephant that crushed an abusive human handler), it feels more like a Ken Burns documentary than theater.Given these constraints, which appear to be specified in George Brant's 2007 play rather than Jason Harber's directorial choices, the excellent cast does well. Allison Strickland's Ballet Girl has the most physically expressive role, her grief at losing her longtime performance partner surprisingly affecting. Ray Tagavilla is chilling as the mild-mannered elephant trainer who uses his specialized skills to execute the town's grisly directives. The townsfolk are well-delineated, a believable blend of dull grinders and firecrackers. As a steam-shovel operator, Ryan Higgins' face is hyper-alive, like a hungry hawk scanning for prey. Jose Amador discreetly owns the moral center of the piece as an African-American who "never felt safer" than the day the town went after the elephant. But his role is given the shortest shrift.Brant's monologues are well-wrought and atmospheric, but they leave you unfulfilled, at the surface of things. The play is untidy, and, as in the historical incident that inspired it, parts don't make sense. We are watching characters watching a spectacle of their own making, which requires the audience to imagine not just the horrifying murder, but also what it feels like to be in that crowd, to live in that community. Are you circus or town? MARGARET FRIEDMAN PICK: SubprimeVoxBox, 1205 E. Pike St., 800-838-3006, subprimetheplay.blogspot.com. 8 p.m. Fri.–Sat. Ends Sept. 19.Norman Bell's real-life experience as a mortgage-loan officer puts him ahead of the pack of artists tackling the subject of the economic meltdown. It also gives his work an insider authenticity rare in theme-based material written by mere playwrights. This guy knows cubicle life: the pinch of the telemarketer's headset, the seductive croon of the top closer's phone pitch, the agony of getting hung up on a hundred times in a row, and the ecstasy of that 101st call, the "live one."In this one-man show, Bell summons the bodies and/or spirits of 11 characters caught up in the mortgage meltdown, following them from the heights of 2005 (the year Bell worked in the industry) to the debased present. Main character John Bartlett starts as a lowly junior loan officer (or J-Lo), then steadily scales the ranks of the no-money-down mortgage scam, staying hydrated on "helping poor people share the American Dream"–flavored Kool-Aid. While it is fun and funny watching him get high on the money, power, and attitude, a vulnerable humanity emerges in his conversations with the guileless dreamers who are his clients. Bell dramatizes the seductive undercurrent of the gigantic hoodwink, the "You know you want it and the only thing standing between you and it is you" biz-babble.Creative ploys, like a mortgage-vocabulary quiz, an animated slide show about the trajectory of a subprime loan, and a mini-mystery, allay the nausea that protracted doses of sleaze typically induce. Director Gin Hammond's expertise in dialect coaching pays off in nuanced character voices, including a few culturally diverse ones. Although momentum flags momentarily here and there, overall the show is a whirlwind tour through a poignantly sordid fiasco, ending with a bang. MARGARET FRIEDMAN

 
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