BWW Reviews: International City Theatre's DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE
We are a digitally driven society living in an information age that measures value by the speed and efficiency with which we respond to each other. Eternally plugged in, we have never been more dependent on our need to be available than we are now. Whether it is via a laptop, Smart phone, iPad or other device, we are perpetually on call - texting, tweeting, emailing, and IM'ing as if there was no tomorrow, while the soundtrack of our daily lives becomes so cluttered with noise it's a wonder we can even hear ourselves think.
The other sad result of all this accessibility is that it leaves us little time to actually connect with each other in real life. It is this extreme connection, and the disconnection it breeds, that Sarah Ruhl explores in her oddly alluring comedy DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE.
In it, a man - seemingly oblivious to the sound of his own cell phone ringing - sits in a café during lunchtime. His phone rings...and rings...and rings until, no longer able to bear the intrusive sound, Jean, a young woman from a nearby table, asks him to please answer it. But the man doesn't respond. Wondering whether he is ill, asleep, or maybe even deaf, she answers it for him and slowly begins to realize that the reason he isn't answering his phone is because he can't. He's dead.
Ruhl's story unfolds like a surreal scavenger hunt as Jean takes it upon herself to tie up the dead man's unfinished business. And the funny thing is, the bizarre story feels entirely plausible. What Ruhl does so well is view what could be a terribly morbid subject through a comically absurd lens of weird normality that is highly entertaining for the audience. Much like Sandra Bullock becomes a comatose man's supposed fiancé in While You Were Sleeping, Jean stumbles into the explanation that she works with Gordon handling his "incoming" calls, when questioned by his family. What those calls are remains to be seen.
As she connects with each subsequent person who knew Gordon, she becomes increasingly more involved in the details of the dead man's life, bringing gifts to his mother, wife and brother that she says came from him (they didn't), and offering his last words (made up on the spot) to his mistress. They're all really just looking for someone to listen to them in a last desperate attempt at connection and Jean quickly becomes all things to all people.
First presented in 2007 at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington D.C., DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE opened in 2008 at Playwrights Horizon in New York directed by Anne Bogart, with Mary Louise Parker in the starring role, then returned to Southern California to South Coast Rep that fall. Now, six years later, it lands at International City Theatre in Long Beach and the hands of director Richard Israel.
Israel smartly takes the surreal nature of the play into account and allows it to reveal its secrets in its own time, always mindful that there is an innocence and precision needed to tell the story in a believable way. He creates a subtle rise and fall of tension that brings the audience and the characters together on a simultaneous journey, doling out bits of information much like Alfred Hitchcock did in his films, giving the audience ample time to think they know where the story is going only to have it unexpectedly veer off in a very different direction.
He also ensures the success of the piece by placing Alina Phelan front and center in the role of Jean. Her sweet, charming everywoman persona is the biggest reason we can even begin to believe that the unusual events that follow Gordon's death could really happen. She's a bit of an underdog and her instant likeability factor and true good nature allows the rest of the curious characters to open up to her without hesitation. Phelan's easy manner and natural desire to please resonate with the inner good girl in us all.
Trent Dawson plays both the self-absorbed Gordon and his much more introverted brother Dwight; two characters who are so drastically different that it's hard to believe they are both the same actor. His Act II opening monologue is a direct address to the audience and a fine example of his ability to command an audience, whether it be an audience of one or one hundred.
Eileen T'Kaye is a pisser as Gordon's mother, Mrs. Gottlieb, an appropriately feisty and eccentric woman who keeps forgetting her son is dead. "You're comforting...I don't know why. You're like a very small casserole," she says to Jean when she meets her for the first time. Heather Roberts gets her glam on as the sexy Other Woman and a mysterious Stranger Jean encounters in an airport in South Africa. This scene takes off with a hilarious fight sequence followed by an even more surreal dream sequence in which Jean and Gordon meet in the afterlife and exchange their versions of the moments before his death. Susan Diol is Gordon's bitter wife, and the final member of this enticing cast.
The ringing of a cell phone is often present in the background of Dave Mickey's quirky sound design which pairs a background of heightened everyday sounds with striking stand-alone effects. His scene transition bumps add a flourish of 30's and 40's nostalgia that even further emphasize the disconnect between modern day sensibilities and the concerns of a simpler time. Lighting designer Jeremy Pivnick achieves some surprisingly beautiful lighting effects with intricate shadow patterns and sparing use of color that create both indoor and outdoor locations. His version of a stained glass church window is dramatically inventive while bold color infuses Kim DeShazo's character-perfect costumes.
D. Martyn Bookwaiter's minimalist set serves the action by creating a kind of open suspension among its elements further illustrating the space that exists between the characters. Multi-functional panels hang in mid-air and set pieces float on and off stage as self-contained groupings. It is as if everything and everyone on stage is really just a small island unto themselves, moving about like ships that pass in the night.
This one will leave you shaking your head at its quirks, laughing at its unexpected turn of events, and even a little horrified by some of the story's unusual developments. One thing is sure, you won't look at your cell phone the same way ever again.
DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE
By Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Richard Israel
Through June 30, 2013
International City Theatre at Long Beach Performing Arts Center
300 East Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, CA 90802
Tickets: (562) 426-4610 or www.internationalcitytheatre.com