Dead Man’s Cell Phone
At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, I’ll admit I came almost kicking and screaming to my smartphone. You see, everyone I knew, including my husband, stared at the damn things at every opportunity—at the dinner table, in meetings, while lying in bed at night, and even while I was actually in the middle of saying something to them. How could something designed to connect people be the instrument of such disconnection? Needless to say, I eventually succumbed to the iPhone and must now make a concerted effort every day to keep it in my purse at dinner time.
But I felt a sense of kinship as I watched TheatreWorks of Northern Nevada’s opening night performance of Sarah Ruhl’s play Dead Man’s Cell Phone. In Ruhl’s whimsical style, the story teases out all the various philosophies of cell phone usage—connectedness, avoidance, gateway to another, potentially better life—with lovable, though somewhat bizarre, characters.
The lights come up on a somewhat homely woman sitting by herself at a café corner table, licking the remnants of a bowl of soup. She puts the bowl down and begins doing some work when a phone rings. And rings. Irritated by the distraction, she looks up and politely asks the gentleman at the table nearby, whose back is to the audience, if he’d kindly answer it. He gives no response. After much incessant ringing, the woman finally gets up to talk to him. But she can’t, because he’s dead. So she answers his phone.
By doing so, the woman, Jean (played by Jamie Woodham Plunkett), is drawn into the mysterious world of the deceased Gordon Gottlieb (Mike Austin). Jean, who seems until now to have been pretty lonely and aimless, is immediately seized with a beguiling sense of purpose: She will single-handedly give peace to Gordon’s spirit and to the loved ones he leaves behind.
I found Plunkett’s portrayal of Jean to be utterly loveable and identifiable, and this is where Ruhl’s writing shines. For instance, when Jean ruminates on the nature of cell phones—why she’s unable to resist each ring of Gordon’s phone, while never having wanted a phone for herself—she says, “If your phone is on, you’re supposed to be there. Sometimes I like to disappear. But it’s like, when everyone has their cell phones on, no one is there. It’s like we’re all disappearing the more we’re there.”
But then, the play takes on a sort of Hitchcock-ian quality. Jean is swept into strange family drama involving Gordon’s cold mother, Mrs. Gottlieb (Debi Braat); his estranged wife, Hermia (Bernadette Garcia); his lonely brother, Dwight (also played by Austin); and his femme fatale mistress (also Garcia). Not to mention Gordon’s strange, shady business. It feels a bit like North by Northwest when Jean soon finds herself in a surreal, dangerous situation that spirals out of control.
Then, unfortunately, the play takes a turn toward the mystical. We hear voices from beyond, get an alternate vision of the afterlife, have a sickeningly sweet reincarnation scene and, in short, make a complete left turn from where we’ve started. Which left me, in the end, unsure of what to make of the story.
I liked it, though. I immensely enjoyed Ruhl’s comedic writing, and what it has to say about our relationships and our over-reliance on technology. I found Holly Natwora’s direction impeccable. There was solid acting by all—especially Plunkett. And production details like background sound convey mood wonderfully. But the story still left me scratching my head a bit.