Associate Producer The Foundry Theatre at the Cherry Lane
New York Times Review
February 12, 2009 THEATER REVIEW | 'TELEPHONE' Bell’s Legacy: The Lonely Crowd of Voices Inside Each Head By Ben Brantley
When it comes to making people question their sanity, few inventions have been as effective as the telephone. Surely you’ve had the experience of droning out a monologue to a friend and suddenly realizing that the connection has been lost and that you have been rattling on to no one. Or maybe to someone altogether different than whom you thought you were speaking with.
What are those distant, garbled voices on the line? What is the significance of that wavery technological hum that bears an alarming resemblance to heavy breathing? In such moments it feels as if there’s nothing lonelier than being alone on a phone. Reach out and touch someone? Ha.
“Telephone,” the inspired and utterly original new tone poem of a play at the Cherry Lane Theater, probes such feelings with the sensitivity and detachment of a heart surgeon. A production of the Foundry Theater, which has quietly been responsible for some of the most artistically ambitious stage work seen in New York in recent years, this short and haunting piece considers the relationship between the telephone and madness and, by extension (as it were), the limits of human communication.
Written by Ariana Reines, a poet making her theater debut, “Telephone” was inspired by a 1989 book by Avital Ronell, a professor of comparative literature, “The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech.” Among book titles least likely to encourage theatrical adaptation, that one is hard to top. And Ms. Ronell’s text — created at the height of Derrida-style deconstructionism and laid out (by the graphic designer Richard Eckersley) in the style of a Dadaist phone book — would seem equally forbidding as a source of audience-friendly theater.
But the Foundry has never shied from producing works rooted in ostensibly unpromising material, including “Lipstick Traces,” Greil Marcus’s time-traveling, discipline-crossing treatise on punk rock, which was turned into a giddy riff of a performance piece by a Texas troupe called the Rude Mechs (seen here in 2001). And darned if the Foundry hasn’t again translated a heady, unruly and uncompromisingly bookish book into vividly theatrical terms. Under the direction of Ken Rus Schmoll, a cast of three and a sharp-eyed design team turn what might have come across as gobbledygook into a stylish and stimulating show.
“Telephone” is made up of three dissimilar parts, and it’s not until it’s over that you realize how each echoes and illuminates the others. In the first Alexander Graham Bell (Gibson Frazier) and Thomas Watson (Matthew Dellapina) recreate the historic moment in 1876 when Bell, testing his latest invention, called out, “Watson, come here, I want you!”
Or was it, “Watson, come here, I need you”? The men are unsure. There are uncountable shades of difference in meaning, after all, between “want” and “need.” And Bell and Watson find themselves drifting into fanciful, circular speculations on the telephone, social conversation and things unheard that are finally more disturbing than amusing for these men.
Inspired by the pair’s theatrical tour of 1877, in which they demonstrated the telephone through the Northeastern United States, this vignette is performed in the arch, formal manner of a stately Victorian farce, like John Maddison Morton’s “Box and Cox.” The polished artifice of their presentation does not conceal the shadows beneath the sheen, as Watson, in particular, grows grave before the prospect of what Bell hath wrought.
“I see the terrifying spaces of the universe hemming me in,” he says. And while Bell is off the stage, Watson startlingly confesses, “Once the morning glories talked to me in their language, and it was intelligible to me.”
Such inaudible voices are what shape the second scene, a bona fide tour de force for the actress Birgit Huppuch. She plays Miss St., a much-written-about patient of Jung’s who believed she had a telephone inside her. The twisting soliloquy that Ms. Huppuch delivers, with symphonic variety and deliberateness, weaves toxic narcissism and paranoia into slowly emerging patterns of poetic logic.
“They twisted a bundle of cords and wires, but I was not born yesterday, and I know all discords come from negligence,” she says angrily. “Now I am attached to them.”
The scary part is that you start to understand this madwoman. Not that you see what she sees, but you feel the conviction of a hermetically sealed world that exists in isolation on its own self-referential terms. Whenever Miss St. stops speaking, with her lips folded inwards and her eyes robbed of the purpose that had animated her, the stage throbs with the ache of solitude.
The third section brings all three performers together. At least you assume it’s Mr. Dellapina, Mr. Frazier and Ms. Huppuch again. They are in thick shadow, and you can’t make out their faces. You can’t even tell if it’s they who are speaking a litany of lines from phone conversations, some of which you have undoubtedly spoken yourself: “I wish I could see you.” “What are you wearing?” “What did you do last night?” “Can’t I just talk to you?”
Listen carefully, and you begin to infer specific relationships in these conversations — between lovers, friends, family members. You are also aware of the frustration of people unable to connect — in all senses of the word — as they want to. And every so often you’re aware of a technological thrum or static (Matt Hubbs is the sound designer) that threatens to envelop them all.
I suppose I don’t have to say that the rarefied “Telephone” is not for everyone. But every aspect of its production — from the acting to Marsha Ginsberg’s mutating set and Tyler Micoleau’s people-eating lighting — is executed with a diamond-cutter’s precision.
Only when the show is over do you appreciate the carefully mapped journey you have taken. It is a trip from crisp clarity into near darkness, in which forms and faces lose their meaning, and voices go slippery and faint. For me at least, it’s going to be hard for the next week or so to have a phone conversation without conjuring up those spectral, shadowed and unreachable-feeling figures in the play’s final scene.