The Playhouse’s ‘Dead Man’s Cell Phone’ Multitasks Like a Smartphone

Technology has been enhancing theater at least since the days of deus ex machina (a god from the machine), when the Greeks used a crane to hoist a dummy deity onto the stage. More recent accessories have included artificial lighting and amplified sound. But playwrights have also incorporated technological advances into the very fabric of their dramas, using gadgets as actors and even themes. In Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine, an accountant for a large corporation is replaced by a calculator. In Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, a 69-year-old man records his current thoughts while listening to his own voice from 30 years earlier. And an ensemble of stolen electric toasters steals the final scene of Sam Shepard’s True West.

A cell phone is not just a prop, but a central performer in Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone. In Joel Schumacher’s 2003 film Phone Booth, Colin Farrell finds it impossible to walk past a ringing telephone in a public phone booth without answering it and thereby putting himself into mortal danger. But by the time Ruhl wrote her play, in 2007, public phone booths were becoming almost as rare as blacksmith shops, replaced by personal hand-held devices that connect human beings and isolate them. What clever marketers dubbed a “smartphone” triggers the action and makes its clamorous presence known throughout Dead Man’s Cell Phone.

In the opening scene, Jean, sitting by herself in a cafe, is annoyed by the continuous jingle emanating from a cell phone across the room. When she asks its owner to turn it off, she realizes that he is unable to, on account of his recent demise. Though shocked to discover herself alone with a corpse, Jean cannot resist the temptation to answer the cell phone’s persistent summons and, by doing so, intrude into a dead stranger’s network of relatives and acquaintances. Even after attending Gordon Gottlieb’s funeral, she insists on holding on to his cell phone. “As long as his phone is ringing,” she contends, “Gordon is still alive.” Jean proceeds not only to meet up with people at the other end of the phone–Gordon’s wife, his mother, his mistress, his brother–but also to alter their reality. Though she never knew the man alive, she makes up lies about Gordon.

Ruhl tosses out ideas as prolifically as a golden retriever sheds fur. She flits among themes that include electronic media’s ability to enrich and diminish us; the fundamental inscrutability of others; the relationship between body and soul; the fallibility of memory; and the sublimity of love. Jean dashes about from a cafe to a church to a bar to Gordon’s mother’s house to a stationery store to Johannesburg to the Afterlife. The play becomes a giddy hodgepodge whose whole is less than the sum of its parts. The whimsical revelation that Gordon made his living selling kidneys and other human parts does not make the work more coherent. The little that we learn of Jean’s background, that she works in a Holocaust museum, seems designed mostly to set her up to declare: “I want to remember everything, even other people’s memories.”

To compete with a cell phone whose irritating ring interrupts key scenes, director Andrew Thornton, who has himself graced the stage of the Cellar Theater with leading roles in Red and Wittenberg, found a capable cast to answer the call. As Gordon, Matthew Byron Cassi is a competent corpse, but he also delivers a robust monologue to start the second act. As his mother, Harriet, Kathleen Couser is elegant, imperious and determined “to mourn him until the day I die.” Meredith Bell Alvarez plays Gordon’s bitter, resentful widow Hermia, and Marisa Varela, his sexy, vain mistress, is convincing when she advises frumpy Jean: “A beautiful woman should walk into a room thinking, ‘I am beautiful, and I know how to walk.’” As Gordon’s younger brother Dwight, E.J. Roberts is a soulful wimp.

“You’re very comforting,” Harriet Gottlieb tells Jean, the bearer of her son’s cell phone, “like a small casserole.” Hermia calls her “a strange duck.” Sharing the stage throughout with a dead man’s active phone, Sarah Fisch’s Jean is unassuming and gauche (Fisch is a frequent contributor to the Current and a former arts and culture editor here). She appalls her hostess by hiccuping at a formal family dinner. Though she declares herself a vegetarian (and Dwight obliges by serving her caramel popcorn as an entree), she later craves a ribeye steak. The romance that suddenly blossoms between her and Dwight seems less a natural development in the plot than the playwright’s fanciful diktat. The awkwardness of Fisch’s Jean is consistent with the discomfort all the self-absorbed characters exhibit in speaking to one another, but also with the way varied parts of the play fail to gel.

A kind of pseudo-Sartrean vision of Hell might better belong in another play. As everything converges to culminate in a sappy demonstration of how love conquers all, the cell phone at last goes silent. We might have benefited from another interruption.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone

8pm Fri-Sat, 3pm & 8pm Sun
The Playhouse–Cellar Theater
800 W Ashby
(210) 733-7258
Through June 1

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