January 18 – February 3, 2019
There’s an incessantly ringing cell phone in a quiet café, a stranger at the next table who has had enough and a dead man – with a lot of loose ends. So begins Dead Man’s Cell Phone, a wildly imaginative new comedy by MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient and Pulitzer Prize finalist Sarah Ruhl. A work about how we memorialize the dead – and how that remembering changes us – it is the odyssey of a woman forced to confront her own assumptions about morality, redemption, and the need to connect in a technologically obsessed world.
Jean – Jenna Anderson
Gordon / Dwight – Brendan McMahon
Mre. Gottlieb – Lindsay Hayward
Hermia – Whitney Blake Dean
The Other Woman / The Stranger – Taylor Staniforth
Theatre critic Robert Hurwitt, in reviewing a San Francisco production of A DEAD MAN’S PHONE, wrote: “you exit the theater to enter a Ruhl world of ordinary people living extraordinary lives and small coincidences opening into quirky metaphysical conundrums…playwright Sarah Ruhl gifts her audience with probing humor, vivid imagination and poignant humanity’.
This quirky and frankly, a little weird production, was an enjoyable surprise. Theater Arlington is a small theater that seats about 130. The only other show we saw there was The Sweetest Swing in Baseball last year and to be honest, I did not care for it. However, A Dead Man’s Phone was entertaining. We are perfectly positioned in the eighth row center, which is perfect. This theatre is intimate – but the seating is designed for T-I-N-Y people. Nathan, who is 6’2”, had his knees snuggly pressed up against the row in front of us. Trying to sit with my legs crossed was a challenge. We were among the youngest patrons sitting amongst a sea grey, white and balding pallets. Regional theatre tends to attract senior citizens.
The set design is minimal with two small tables, each with seating for two. There were three screens as the backdrop to create the illusion of a local café/diner. The play begins with a woman (we’ll later learn is named Jean), writing a letter at her table in the cafe. She’s facing the audience. Sitting with his back to us is a man with “excellent posture” who sits very still. When his phone rings the lady looks up at him in annoyance. He doesn’t answer. The stage is quiet for a moment, and his phone rings again. She glares at him again and still – he doesn’t move. The audience begins to titter with uneasy laughter. Is the man dead or just deaf? The third time the man’s phone rings, the lady answers it. We learn the man’s name is Gordon and that he is indeed DEAD. Laughter fills the theatre and the stage goes dark.
The next scene begins with Jean attending her “new friend’s” funeral. A strange older woman wearing two minks (legs and tails draped around her neck) enters the church and we eves-drop on her very funny monologue. We learn she is Gordon’s mother. Near the end of the funeral, Gordon’s phone rings again, his mother retrieves it from her purse and leaves the church. She decides to meet the caller back at the cafe. At this point, Nathan and I were laughing but curious about the dead man’s phone and why it continues to ring.
The mysterious caller that Jean meets at the coffee shop is apparently the dead man’s mistress. The mistress has many questions about Gordon’s final moments. Instead of just saying, “Well, I really didn’t know Gordon, but I have his cell phone…” Jean spins a saucy story about her friendship with Gordon. It is hilarious.
The rest of the show follows this theme of a comedy of errors. The entire audience was on a journey to learn more about this fascinating DEAD MAN – Gordon. Who was he? How and why did he die? Spoiler alert – – we do ultimately find out. There were some really funny lines. At one point Gordon’s mother said to Jean, “you are comforting, like a small casserole.”
I was impressed with the cast and their acting abilities. I never felt like they were thinking about their lines; everyone was very natural on stage. Admittedly, second half of the show gets a little weird, but as the curtain dropped, Nathan and I were glad we spent an evening at the theatre. If you ever have the opportunity to see A Dead Man’s Cell Phone – run, don’t walk, to the box office for tickets.