by Jenni Morin
It’s not news that the very technology meant to connect the world causes further isolation and an undeniable dependence. Sarah Ruhl’s award-winning play, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, is a study of just how pervasive the issue has become—and it was written seven years ago. Amidst both mundane and surprisingly intimate interactions are glimmers of existentialist philosophy and what seems to be a changing definition of life, death and love. This interesting, slightly dark comedy runs at The Playhouse Cellar Theater through June 1.
Jean is withdrawn, trudging through life without the one piece of technology that can confirm her relationship to the world around her. As a cell phone incessantly rings, breaking her solitude in a café, she suddenly becomes connected—not just to Gordon, the deceased owner of the phone, but to all of his family and acquaintances, and by extension, the world. As she speaks to Gordon’s business associates and meets his mistress, his wife Hermia, his brother Dwight and his mother Mrs. Gottlieb, Jean feels inclined to make them feel loved and connected to Gordon after his passing. Just as conversations are transmitted over the air, Jean pulls stories from thin air about the perfect person she imagines Gordon to be. In the end, it’s more about love than it is about technology, but it’s the connections with people and even places that make this piece intriguing and apropos.
Sarah Fisch captures the awkward character of Jean, albeit a bit flatly and subdued in the beginning. Kathy Couser accurately portrayed the icy, frail matriarch, Mrs. Gottlieb. As the Other Woman, Marisa Varela stole the scene in transition with a seductive smoking session. E.J. Roberts was one of the most consistent actors on stage as he played Dwight, Gordon’s younger, less charismatic brother. Meredith Alvarez played Hermia, Gordon’s wife, with confidence and a bluntness perfectly suited to her. Matthew Byron Cassi played the title character of Gordon flawlessly, spouting insights from beyond the grave with an unrepentant calmness indicative of Ruhl’s overall tone for the play.
Director Andrew Thornton effectively highlighted these insightful monologues and shimmering gems in the script. He also carved out space for those ironic and comedic moments, keeping the audience engaged.
Sarah Martin’s set was minimalist yet intricate at the same time with hidden compartments and a wall of small compartments reminiscent of an old mailroom awaiting messages. But it was Kaitlin Muse’s lighting design that brought it to life unexpectedly and spectacularly. Unfortunately for a play dependent on the sound of a cell phone ringing, the quality and execution of the sound effects were not up to par. However, the music chosen for the scene transitions was superbly fitting for the tone of the play.
Some of the costuming choices seemed outdated in the era of cell phones. A little more thought should have gone into Jean’s costuming where something more flattering would have benefited the actress and better complimented the dialogue. This might have made it easier to overlook the regrettable dismissal of the other characters’ description of Jean’s character, which is quite symbolic in the script.
The production as a whole felt slightly awkward when this type of fantasy-realism requires a certain crispness in execution to overcome its quirkiness and absurdity. Ruhl’s script is an important theatre piece, even if it is a little peculiar and difficult to pull off.
If for no other reason, this production is worth the trip for the philosophical points it raises about love, connections, technology, death and human existence. Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a thought-provoking play meant to spark a discussion. When cell phones are off and the lights go down, anything could happen—even a connection.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone runs at The Playhouse’s Cellar Theater through June 1 with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and on Sundays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. For more information and to reserve tickets, visit theplayhousesa.org.