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Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

Dead Man's Cell Phone
Hartford TheaterWorks

Dead Man's Cell Phone
Finnerty Steeves
Even the title is odd enough: Dead Man's Cell Phone, the clever, edgy comedy continuing at Hartford's TheaterWorks through March 15th, demonstrates once again that playwright Sarah Ruhl reaches beyond the usual confines of theater.

Designer Michael Schweikardt's set places two individuals, ostensibly seated in a café, within an all-white perspective. John Lasiter provides bright, glaring light which is complemented by the dark clothing costumer Katherine Hampton Noland has chosen for Jean (Finnerty Steeves). She seems introspective and seeks some quiet. Thus, Jean is fittingly disturbed when a nearby red cell phone rings—and rings again. She elects to take down messages and phone numbers. Gordon (Craig Wroe) is not responsive because, Jean discovers, he is not alive.  Jean becomes part of deceased Gordon's life as she attends his funeral and then gets to know his mother, Mrs. Gottlieb (Ann-Lynn Kettles); widow, Hermia (Lee Heinz);  and The Other Woman in his life (Joey Parsons). Gordon's brother Dwight (Mark Shanahan) and Jean fall in love even as they fiddle with various samples of paper; he has a stationery store.

Steeves' characterization of Jean shows an unlikely, awkward, ill-at-ease woman about to turn forty in, ironically, the right place at the right time. Isolated within her own previous life, inclusive of work at a Holocaust Museum, she is quite comfortable fabricating story upon story. Some of this off-beat stuff is just too much. Ruhl is a sharp dialogue writer and she has a nifty time of it with this piece which also, by implication, has something to say about the value of life.

Shortly after intermission, Gordon appears, having returned to supply explication and analysis of his time before his final moment. While the monologue is revealing, Ruhl probably could edit without losing a great deal. Gordon, we discover, isn't at all likable. He is pretty much estranged from everyone (mother, wife, mistress) and the fault lies within his own behavior and attitude toward each. Besides, his occupation was, to say the least, shaky and shady. Talk about an unsympathetic character.

Rob Ruggiero, a director who always seems to correctly facilitate while allowing actors the freedom to make choices on stage, works with a very capable cast. Steeves playing Jean, the off-kilter focus of Ruhl's script, is absolutely distinctive. I had known that the oftentimes droll and understated Mary Louise Parker originated the role Off Broadway last year. Steeves' take on Jean, though, is singular. She is disciplined enough to create a character who appears unhappy, uncoordinated and unsure of herself at the outset. The cell phone, however, and the fact that Gordon, sitting near her in the café is neither impolite nor deaf but dead, grants her the opportunity to assume another persona. What a great thing! And, Kettles perfectly captures the haughty Mrs. Gottlieb.

Thematically, Dead Man's Cell Phone addresses issues of humane responsibility and morality. Jean picks up the phone because it irritates her, but she is a diligent woman who feels (for whatever reason) that she ought to answer and follow through when messages are received. After that moment, both the phone and the center character of the play assume greater relevance.

Ruhl writes with an eclectic voice and the humor is wry; her play bids a viewer squirm just a bit through his/her laughter. TheaterWorks is such an intimate house that one feels within rather than outside of the café as the action begins.

Dead Man's Cell Phone continues at TheaterWorks of Hartford through March 15th. For ticket information, call (860) 527-7838 or visit www.theaterworkshartford.org.


Photo: Lanny Nagler


Also see the current theatre schedule for Connecticut & Beyond

- Fred Sokol



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