‘She’s taken away the predictable’

In her latest works, playwright Ruhl continues to surprise and enchant

Playwright Sarah Ruhl Playwright Sarah Ruhl. (Fred R. Conrad/New York Times)
By Christopher Wallenberg
Globe Correspondent / October 11, 2009

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NEW YORK - Sarah Ruhl, the 35-year-old playwright who has already scored a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant’’ and a Pulitzer Prize finalist spot, is musing over her tendency to focus on what’s usually “the second string character’’ in a play and thrust him or her to the front of the stage. Specifically, she’s referring to Jean, the introverted, mousy protagonist of “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,’’ which makes its Boston premiere Friday at the Lyric Stage Company.

“Someone like Jean doesn’t normally get a whole play written about her. She’s usually the sidekick or best friend,’’ explains Ruhl. “I’m interested in what happens if you foreground that character. People like Jean are all heroes of their own story, but they don’t feel like heroes on the surface. I’m drawn to people like that in life.’’

In “Cell Phone,’’ Jean’s world is turned upside down when she answers the trilling phone of a dead man in a cafe. Ruhl compares Jean to the quiet, passive heroine, Lucy Snowe, in Charlotte Brontë’s novel “Villette.’’

“It’s almost like [Lucy] is an invisible or ghostly presence, in a way,’’ says Ruhl. “But as the novel progresses, she becomes more and more present and alive.’’

The challenge, explains the playwright, is to figure out “how you put a character front and center who’s not externalizing all of their emotions all of the time and then stage that in a theatrical way.’’

Ruhl may be discussing the protagonist of “Cell Phone,’’ but you can’t help but think she’s describing her own unassuming exterior, which remains unflappable even at a watershed moment in her career, as she prepares for her upcoming Broadway debut, “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play.’’

Relaxing on a comfy couch in a spacious office at Lincoln Center Theatre, which is shepherding “In the Next Room’’ to the Lyceum Theatre starting Oct. 22, Ruhl is polite and soft-spoken, erupting in tiny giggles at various conversational ironies. Her auburn hair is pulled back from her face, and she’s wearing a demure black dress, which hides the baby bump she’s carrying on her small frame. Yet this Manhattanite’s modest Midwestern demeanor belies a lively wit and piquant intellect, and it’s jolting when you hear her unleash a rare expletive or small rant on a subject of some annoyance.

Ruhl’s plays are anything but innocuous. They’ve been hailed by critics and audiences in New York, Boston, and beyond as audacious, expressive, and deeply theatrical - a breath of fresh air for audiences sated on a diet of too much kitchen-sink naturalism and dysfunctional family drama.

Her works are fabulist fables filled with metaphysical moments and strange, surreal occurrences. In “Eurydice,’’ which Ruhl was inspired to write after the death of her father, she reimagines the Orpheus myth from the point of view of the dead bride, who arrives in the underworld in a rain-soaked elevator, while a trio of Stones, acting as Greek chorus, hector and bray. In “The Clean House,’’ characters toss apples from a balcony into the sea, which also happens to be someone’s living room. In other plays, fish walk on their tailfins, a woman is transformed into an almond, a canine narrates a death in the family.

“I don’t set out to be a fabulist, but I also don’t set out to write naturalism or imitate reality on a one-to-one ratio,’’ says Ruhl. “When photography was first introduced, Picasso was asked why he didn’t create more realistic art, and he said something like, ‘Oh, you think this is reality? This woman is 2 inches tall, two-dimensional, and has no arms or legs.’ So the impossibility, ultimately, of representing and reflecting back reality is a logical fallacy to me.’’

Carmel O’Reilly, who’s directing “Dead Man’s Cell Phone’’ at the Lyric Stage, says of Ruhl, “She’s taken away the predictable. It’s as if she’s shining a light on something very ordinary and familiar, but from a different angle so that we see it in a new way. In doing so, sometimes we’re confronted with ideas that we might not have seen before.’’

Ruhl’s plays have also been praised for their skillful toggling between such emotions as laughter and sorrow, exuberance and regret, hope and resignation.

“I’m of Irish ancestry, so I grew up in that culture, where you have to have a sense of humor about terrible things,’’ says Ruhl. “It’s a survival mechanism. I think we can only process so much grief, and then the mind needs to retreat from it, and we need to laugh.’’

In “Cell Phone,’’ Jean commandeers the mobile phone of Gordon, the corpse from the cafe, and begins playing secretary, therapist, and healer to his loved ones. It seems Gordon had made a mess of his life, with a mercurial mistress, a distant mother, a socially awkward brother, and a perilous profession.

Ruhl wrote the play after she began feeling disheartened by the lack of cellphone manners she saw around her and started thinking about ideas of connection and disconnection in the digital age.

“I always feel a little at odds with technology,’’ she says. “So I think the cellphone became kind of a golem of modern life to me - but also a potential symbol of, and mechanism for, connection and intimacy. So I was interested in my own ambivalence about this object.’’

A self-professed collector of strange facts, Ruhl says she was inspired to pen “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play’’ after a friend gave her a book, “The Technology of Orgasm,’’ in which she learned that in the Victorian era, doctors used to treat women diagnosed with “hysteria’’ with vibrators, and that prior to the use of electricity, they manually stimulated women as treatment.

Ruhl feels such a play has resonance in today’s world, where “people compartmentalize their work lives from their emotional lives from their sex lives.’’

“We’re steeped in the commodification of desire. Sex is everywhere. But intimacy is not,’’ she says. “I think what’s dangerous about the 19th century and about the play are those moments of actual intimacy. Like the touch of a hand is dangerous, the sight of an ankle is dangerous - in some ways more dangerous than a vibrator on [a woman], because they were so innocent about it.’’

Growing up in suburban Chicago, the daughter of a high school English teacher who moonlighted as an actress and a father who worked in marketing, Ruhl was a voracious reader. She aspired to be a poet, but during her senior year as an English major at Brown University, she asked Paula Vogel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, to advise her thesis paper about actresses in the 19th-century novel. Vogel, who had been astonished by Ruhl’s work in her playwriting class, told the young woman that she’d advise her thesis, but only if she wrote a play instead.

“I’ll never forget how liberated I felt walking out of her office and down the streets of Providence,’’ says Ruhl, who returned to Brown two years later to get her MFA in playwrighting under Vogel’s tutelage.

Vogel became a mentor in her career - and in life. “It’s not just that I probably wouldn’t have become a playwright if it weren’t for her,’’ says Ruhl, “but I might not have had the resilience to keep going.’’

Despite Ruhl’s success, she is not without her detractors. Some critics have accused her of an over-reliance on whimsical and idiosyncratic details that can come across as cloying. Others charge that her writing lacks reason and psychological depth. Ruhl shrugs off these criticisms with a frustrated but spirited defense.

“I do think psychological realism is a crock, because it makes emotions so rational. It’s not realism. I think it’s just a form,’’ says Ruhl, whose husband and sister are, ironically, psychiatrists. “Theater, from Shakespeare to the Greeks, has always been about irrationality, in some profound way. So I think to make it all linear and make it all causal is kind of weird. The rational unearthing of neuroses isn’t enough.’’

With a Broadway debut looming, Ruhl might understandably be overwhelmed by the pressure of the moment. But she is typically measured in her outlook. Perhaps, she says, that’s a function of the humbling effects of young motherhood (Ruhl has a 3-year-old daughter and twins on the way).

“It’s exciting to be done on Broadway, especially as a female playwright. But I do think you have to put horse blinders on and just get dragged through the fire and do your work,’’ she says. “Because there comes a point for every writer where people get sick of you and move on to what this other 26-year-old is doing. I’ve seen it happen with friends. Horton Foote went through it. Edward Albee went through it. So I don’t have any delusions of grandeur or think of my career as a linear thing. There are going to be fluctuations. I’m just trying to enjoy it while it lasts and not get too spoiled.’’

DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE At the Lyric Stage Company Oct. 16-Nov. 14. Tickets: $25-$54. 617-585-5678,

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