BWW Reviews: Quirky DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE Bolstered by Talented Cast and Imaginative Design
It's rare for two plays by the same playwright to run simultaneously in Austin. It's exceedingly rare for two plays by the same female playwright to run simultaneously in Austin. That's why it's so surprising that there are two productions of Sarah Ruhl plays in Austin right now. As ZACH Theatre produces her Pulitzer Prize and Tony nominated comedy In the Next Room, UT-Austin's Department of Theatre and Dance presents another Ruhl comedy, Dead Man's Cell Phone. What makes the occurrence all the more interesting is their similarities in subject matter. Both involve technology and its ability to bring people together or isolate them. But that's where the similarities end. In the Next Room takes a more realistic, character driven approach while Dead Man's Cell Phone is more cerebral, artistic, modern, and surreal.
At the top of the play, the mousey, easily dismissed Jean (Mackenzie Dunn) sits quietly in a café when a cell phone starts ringing incessantly. The phone belongs to a stranger, Gordon (Harrison Harvey) who doesn't answer or even acknowledge his phone. Eventually the ringing gets on Jean's nerves, so she confronts Gordon, only to realize that he's dead. She calls the police and then does something I'm sure most of us would not do. Since the phone keeps ringing, she answers it. And then she does something I doubt anyone would do, let alone get away with. She keeps Gordon's cell phone in an attempt to keep some part of Gordon alive. After all, if people kept calling him, he must be important to someone, maybe even loved. She even goes to his funeral, passing herself off as a co-worker, and befriends his mother (Maddrey Blackwood), widow (Tasha Gorel), mistress (Merin Rogers), and brother (Joseph Keith Wilson).
Director Jess Hutchinson has plenty of challenging material to work with here. Ruhl's odd text isn't exactly character driven or linear, but Hutchinson makes the most of it. She embraces the peculiar play and creates a fast-paced piece from it. While you never really know where Ruhl's material is going, Hutchinson ensures that every moment is compelling and visually interesting. The projections, designed by Patrick Lord and featuring artwork by Jason Buchanan, are also worthy of note. The animated pencil sketch projections easily set the scene and do so in a beautiful, inventive, and artistic way.
Hutchinson's six person cast is exceptional as well. While we question Jean's actions and choices (Who steals from a dead guy? Really?), Mackenzie Dunn is adorably goofy and easily likeable. She may do unsympathetic things, but we sympathize with her need to feel connected to others. As the mistress, Merin Rogers is dangerous and seductive. Maddrey Blackwood is hysterically funny as Gordon's high society, alcoholic mother, and she delivers what may become my favorite eulogy of all time. Harrison Harvey, who seemed a bit out of his element in UT's fall production of Dial "M" for Murder, is far more effective as the self-serving, almost sociopathic Gordon. Joseph Keith Wilson is endearing as Gordon's witty but widely ignored brother, Dwight, and Tasha Gorel is fantastic as Gordon's icy wife, a trait superbly riffed on in the play's final moments.
So between the two Sarah Ruhl plays currently in Austin, which should you see? That's really a matter of opinion and personal taste, but I will say that Dead Man's Cell Phone is the more challenging play of the two, and UT's current production of Dead Man's Cell Phone easily handles the difficulties of the material which should be applauded. Anyone who turns off their cell phone and enters the theater will not be disappointed.
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, including one 10 minute intermission.
DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE, produced by UT-Austin's Department of Theatre and Dance, plays the Oscar G Brockett Theatre at 300 East 23rd Street Austin, TX 78712 now thru February 23rd. Performances are Wednesday thru Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $15-$25. For tickets and information, please visit www.utexas.edu/finearts/tad