Dead Man’s Cell Phone – Not In Service
I think cell phones have turned us all into astronaut spacetimetravelers. Stay with me. People are sewn, Teletubbie-like, into their phones almost all the time, almost twenty-four hours a day. Watch people waiting in line. They’re not there. They’ve traveled to the “other place”, they’ve left their eyeballs, their bodies are now in stasis. They’ve gone to another dimension, a foreign planet where they’ve joined together in this giant, timeless, seamless sticky web of pulsing little screens where they can interact with other humans doing the exact same thing. It’s creepy. It’s great. Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, which premiered in 2007, was riiiiight on the cusp of the giant, GIANT, ubiquitous “that fucking seven-year-old has a nicer phone than me!” time period and it reflects it. It’s got that slightly paranoid tang, that we’re-all-gonna-be-emotionless-robots! zing. I luuuuv this play. It does my very favorite thing, which is to start with an almost insultingly basic premise and spiral out and spiral out into we’re basically watching the motion of the spheres. Here’s how it goes: Gordon (Jim Reiter), a middle-aged besuited businessy type, has dropped unceremoniously deader-than-a-doornail sitting at a booth in a crappy diner. Jean (Heather Quinn), a woman at a neighboring table, is unaware that Gordon is recently late. All she’s focused on is the noise of his cell phone, emitting at regular intervals from his cooling corpse. Eventually, the slightly dim Jean catches on and answers the phone. And then it starts. Following a quirky instinct to go to the dead soup-sucker’s funeral, Jean gets more and more drawn into the world of Gordon Gottleib, (eventually meeting his mother, Mrs. Gottleib (Mary Fawcett Watko), his brother, Dwight (Nick Beschen), his mistress Other Woman/The Stranger (Darice Clewell) and his widow, Hermia (Jean Berard)) white-lying along the way about his last intentions, you know, just to sort of ease everyone’s transition. As Gordon himself observes at one point “Only a dead man can be 100% good.” Lonely Jean creates the sort of person she wants to have known, turning Gordon into a poet that loved his wife, a devoted son, a good boss. Turns out Gordon is into some rough stuff, though, and Jean’s fantasy time comes to an abrupt halt at the butt end of a gun crashing into the back of her skull. She dies for a little while, meets Gordon in heaven? hell? (who knows?) and learns some pretty wild Sliders type shit about the afterlife. The thing about this play that makes it great and also sort of frustrating is that Ruhl is a master of economy of dialogue. Her writing is deceptively straightforward. All of the oogly stuff actually happens between the lines but in a subtle way, not in an “I want to kill myself” Harold Pinter (lawwwwd deliver us) way. Director Tom Newbrough chose to play Cell Phone disappointingly straight and close to the text for me. Take the scene where Jean first joins Gordon’s grieving relatives at the dinner table. We should be able to see all of the family dynamics deliciously interacting here, from the way that crazy old Mrs. Gottleib only serves a giant Rocky Horror-esque chunk of meat for dinner to the way that Hermia, Gordon’s wife, eyes up the younger Jean veeeeery suspiciously. It wasn’t there. These people were like a tabula rasa, blank, going through the motions. It isn’t that there weren’t good performances, it’s that I don’t think Newbrough got the guts of the play: it should swing wildly between fantasy and ordinary, bizarre and everyday, isolating and heartwarming. If you just doggedly play it straight to the end, the comedy is wet and the truths get totally lost. The biggest example of this miss was Heather Quinn. She’s not a bad actor, but her Jean seemed stiff (no pun intended), maybe a little nervous -it was opening night, true, no fair, reviewer. The way she played it didn’t seem to grasp Jean’s crazy uber-Pollyannaing. Her face was like bleached chalk, all eyes, no spirit. She had lovely hair and very cute shoes but the performance didn’t leave me with the “what the fuck is wrong with her” chills I wanted it to. She was just a little too literal, too grounded for me. Jean Berard’s Hermia had a fairly funny drunk scene, but where was the subtext? She was a woman drunk in a bar. There wasn’t anything under it. Mary Fawcett Watko came closest, stealing the stage whenever she was on it as Mrs. Gottleib, who reminded me of my late grandmother, a woman who could also say words like “shitter” while wearing furs in the daytime. I also thought Jim Reiter’s monologue at the top of Act 2 was probably the best scene in the play. He got it. Man, can he can do a not-quite-charasmatic asshole to a T. I loved the costumes (Christina R. Mcalpine) – if someone doesn’t get me that yellow dragon-print kimono Mrs. Gottleib was wearing right now I’m going to drop dead on purpose in protest. Set (Edd Miller) was juuuust this side of a little too minimal (too minimal also translates to lazy) with the main set being a couple of tables and red chairs. I thought the sound design (Richard Atha-Nicholls) was clever, not too much, letting most of the audio be carried by the “crackhead cricket” tweets and chirps of various cell phone ring tones.
BOTTOM LINE: I’m a fool for Sara Ruhl and I love this play. But this production was a little damp for my taste. I was looking forward to a creepy crawly Hopper/Gorey mashup with a touch of Charles Addams thrown in…and I got an only slightly askew Thomas Kincaid instead. Despite a few wonderfully weirdo performances that came close to the mark and a pretty solid design concept, Dead Man’s Cell Phone was an almost-not-quite. The flesh was clearly willing, but the spirit, in too many places, was misplaced.
Running at Colonial Players until June 28th.
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