Despite its cuteness, Dead Man's Cell Phone fascinates throughout
I wasn't interested in the discussion about the uses and abuses of cell phones in Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone. To begin with, the theme is dated. Most people don't use their phones to talk these days; they're too busy checking e-mail, playing games, counting calories, perusing their calendars or evaluating the wines on a restaurant menu. But I was intrigued by Ruhl's deeper concerns, her exploration of the ways in which we're shaped by our interactions with others, her questions about how we remember the dead, the persistence with which she struggles to dismantle the barrier between life and death — as she did in her shimmering Eurydice and does again here through the penetrative agency of the mobile phone.
Ruhl's genius is for arresting images, images that coruscate in your mind for a long time, and Dead Man's Cell Phone begins with one of these. A mousy woman named Jean is sitting in a cafe when a cell phone rings. She glances at its owner, a well-dressed businessman at the next table, but the phone goes unanswered. It stops. It starts again. Eventually, she realizes that the man is dead. There's something about the realization, the still, silent figure in this mundane world of tables and salt shakers, that sends a chill down the spine. Impulsively Jean picks up the man's phone. The absurd banality of her words amplifies the chill. "Shall I stay with him?" she asks the 911 operator. A little later, she kneels beside the corpse. "Are you still in there?" she says.
Jean's impulsive gesture opens up a whole new life to her: that of the dead man, Gordon. She feels protective of him; his death gives her a sense of purpose. She decides to comfort the people he left behind, which means lying to them about his final moments. Unfortunately, she has no idea how cold, dishonest and corrupt Gordon's life has been, or how twisted his relationships are with his imperious mother, his neurotic wife, Hermia, his mysterious mistress, or his far nicer younger brother, Dwight — with whom she eventually falls in love.
There's much to admire in Dead Man's Cell Phone, but the script is marred by cuteness, whimsy and a really ghastly sentimentality. The scenes between Jean and Dwight in a stationery store are unbearably twee. There are some downright dumb concepts: a kidney-shaped lamp that Jean takes to the airport as a substitute for the actual organ, the revelation that after death we wash our clothes in laundromats naked, and a plaintive question about whether the air remembers the conversations constantly spinning through it. But there's a certain amount of charm. Watching, you frequently find yourself at odds with yourself. It's impossible to believe, for instance, that selfish Gordon, seeing Jean gulp her lobster bisque in the last frantic moments before his heart gave out, felt a moment of tenderness toward her. But you want to believe it because it's sweet. And when Jean, trapped in the afterlife and unable to use the cell phone, finds another way to summon Dwight, you're simultaneously thinking "Surely a Pulitzer-winning playwright can do better than this" and feeling moved — at least a little. The play sputters out in a welter of small, silly scenes, however, and you realize the people you've been watching have no insides; they're just walking tics and symbols.
Despite all this, Dead Man's Cell Phone held my fascinated attention throughout. Curious Theatre has assembled one terrific cast. We haven't seen nearly enough of Emily Paton Davies recently, and what a pleasure she is as earnest, vulnerable Jean. Kathryn Gray makes Gordon's mother hilariously mannered, and C. Kelly Leo becomes a small tornado during the wife's drunk scene, so brilliantly over the top that she blurs at the edges. Scott Bellott's Dwight is low-key and likable, and when the deceased Gordon returns in the sardonic persona of Bill Hahn, he jolts everyone to bristling attention. Finally, there's Trina Magness's stunning turn as Gordon's mistress. Michael Duran's set and Shannon McKinney's lighting are very fine; Brian Freeland's movie music adds irony; and I loved choreographer David Reuille's cell-phone ballet.
After my former colleague, Alan Dumas, died some years back, I found myself periodically phoning his still-active extension at work, just to hear his resonant, inimitable voice announcing that he'd get back to me shortly.
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