Can you hear me?
A fun dark comedy on the line at the Blue Room
Last Friday, the Blue Room kicked off a new year of local theater in the most satisfying way with its opening-night performance of Dead Man’s Cell Phone, a fresh contemporary work, that was smartly and confidently presented by the energetic company.
Picking a play by Sarah Ruhl was the first good choice. The young New York-based playwright is already a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and 2006 MacArthur Fellowship recipient, and her witty plays often deal with real-world issues by moving between real and fantasy worlds in a manner that comes off as completely natural. And the story in this 2007 dark comedy has a lot of fun with that approach.
It opens with young Jean (Keilana Decker) sitting and reading in a café, when a ringing cell phone at the next table interrupts her quiet. When the man at the other table doesn’t pick up, she gets irritated and answers it for him. As one would guess by the title, his lack of response is due to the fact that he’s died at his table, and so Jean decides to keep the phone and to keep answering his calls.
Turns out Gordon, the dead man, has a complicated life, and soon his various familial dramas become Jean’s. But clues to a darker side of Gordon’s life (and the spirit of Gordon himself) start popping up as well, and things get more real (and unreal) for Jean than she could’ve imagined they would.
In his director’s notes in the program, Chico theater vet Brad Moniz repeats the familiar “Can you hear me now?” question from the Verizon cellphone ads, making a point about how the ways humans connect with one another have changed since cellphones and online communication have taken the place of much of our face-to-face interaction. And as Jean fakes her way into Gordon’s contacts’ lives, we see that each in his or her own way is seeking connection to the humanity in themselves and others.
For her part, Jean is a loner who’s been disconnected from human relationships, yet she bravely throws herself into these stranger’s messy lives with reckless abandon in order to rectify that. And Decker is a lot of fun to watch in the part. She plays it with a comfortable awkwardness, and her long limbs, pig tails and saucer eyes all serve the character well in that regard.
The whole cast is wonderful—Autumn Jay as Gordon’s melodramatic grieving mother, Mrs. Gottlieb; Lauren O’Connor as the breathy mistress; Alyssa Larson, showing great range, going from cold to hot to broken as Gordon’s widow; and especially Bill Saporito as Gordon’s brother who falls all over himself for Jean. His painfully awkward Tourettes-like outbursts provided the majority of the laugh-out-loud moments, and his and Decker’s sweet chemistry ignited the example of human warmth that the characters were all seeking.
The surprise was local musician Mark Zempel as Gordon. His experience with hamming it up on stage served him well—maybe not so much with his responsiveness to Decker in their scenes together, but definitely when he had the floor to himself to rant solo while reenacting the day leading up to his last breath.
And Moniz deserves particular kudos for neatly bringing the play together. The whole fabulous mess of emotional turmoil, slapstick, romance, and the fantastical was delivered at a lively (but unhurried) pace, naturally gliding along the through line of people seeking connection. My favorite touch was the charmingly lo-fi special effect at the end of each act that nicely got across the point of taking a break from technology to construct tangible human connections.