Director Debbie Allen doesn’t capture all the greatness in America’s King Lear: The design tends to be clumsy and the traffic management typically isn’t much better. But getting even merely good work out of this cast is enough to flush away bad memories of the play’s abominably starry revival a few years back. As Brick, stage newcomer Howard has the right sly passivity, though he can’t make us feel the full weight of his anguish. The great Jones, fulfilling his date with destiny, roars when Big Daddy needs to roar and tiptoes through the pianissimo moments when he doesn’t and lacks only the tiniest bit of stitching to connect the two.
All the actors, in fact, give performances of such charm—including Phylicia Rashad’s outsize Big Mama—that the revival finds itself with a rich man’s problem: The audience wants to laugh too much, seizes too gladly on the comic side of Williams’s tragicomic vision. With Allen unable or unwilling to do much to keep the balance right, it’s a relief whenever Anika Noni Rose turns up.
Having played the smart daughter in Caroline, or Change a few years back, she reemerges here as a sex bomb. Looking good in a slip is no guarantee of success as Maggie—ask Ashley Judd, a slinky zero back in 2003—but she brings to the role both the sternness the revival needs and a desperate fragility. The only victory Maggie can have on a hot tin roof, she knows, is “just staying on it, I guess, as long as she can.” Delivered with quiet resignation, that line reassures all doubters that Williams wrote one hell of a play, and Rose is one hell of an actress.
Put together a playwright known for quirky stories (Sarah Ruhl), an actress known for a mannered touch or two (Mary-Louise Parker), and a director whose company specializes in stylized experiments (Anne Bogart), and what do you get? About what you’d fear, I’m afraid: Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Ruhl’s new play at Playwrights Horizons, is a giant slice of whimsy drenched in whimsy sauce.
Ruhl begins with an intriguing Hitchcocky premise: a man expires in the middle of a café as his cell phone begins to ring. When a timid thirtysomething woman answers it, she’s ushered into his family and shady business life. The unfolding action is sometimes funny, and Parker is as charming as any actress who insists on using that girlish drawl can be, but the eccentricities here are laid on so thick that Wes Anderson looks like a panting hyperrealist by comparison.
Much as I liked her spin on Eurydice, Ruhl has been falling into a pattern. She writes speeches that draw you up short—as when the dead man (the terrific T. Ryder Smith) describes how people outrun their souls when they travel—amid stories that you wish would end already. She’s racking up the trophies (MacArthur “genius” grant, Pulitzer finalist, etc.), but I still wonder if Ruhl might be a gifted poet straining to be a workaday playwright. Whatever the cause, she keeps writing scripts I’d rather read than see.