Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Dead Man's Cell Phone
Lyric Arts Main Street Stage
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of The Children


Katie Strom Rozanas
Photo by Adam Rozanas
There are many ways in which cell phones have changed our lives; most of those are for the better. Leaving aside the virtues of smart phones and their abundance of apps, cell phones enable a person to call home if they miss their bus, to call for help if they car breaks down, to receive a call for a job interview while away from home, to deliver urgent news to loved ones who are traveling, and to keep the same phone number after a cross-country move. Yes, there are the downsides: people who boorishly conduct loud conversations on their phones in public, phones ringing during movies or religious services, and hazardous people who make calls or send texts while driving.

In Sarah Ruhl's comic play Dead Man's Cell Phone, currently being presented at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage, a hapless woman named Jean sits alone trying to write in a coffee shop when one of those abominations occurs: a cell phone rings at the next table, ringing on and on without being answered. When this happens again, Jean addresses the gentleman at that table and asks him to answer his phone or turn it off. Finally, in frustration, Jean struts over there and answers the phone. It is only after she has taken a message for the gent that she realizes that the guy, who is named Gordon, is dead. Another call comes in, from a salesperson whom Jean puts off. Yet another call—Gordon's mother. At this juncture, Jean realizes that she has a burning responsibility to do something about the dead man.

This is when we discover that Ruhl has inserted elements of absurdity into the play, as we observe a coffee shop with only these two customers, and no one else—not even a barista in sight. It is up to Jean and Jean alone to take responsibility. She calls 911, but keeps Gordon's phone, and through it enters a total stranger's world. She attends his unorthodox funeral; meets with his mistress (a European accented femme fatale), who insists on knowing Gordon's last words; and gets invited to dinner with Gordon's overbearing mother, indifferent widow Hermia, and hapless brother Dwight. Because she was with Gordon when he died, they all surmise she knew him well. With the best of intentions—at least, it seems that way—she invents his tender last words, gifts of farewell, and intentions to mend lingering rifts. The Gordon that Jean invents is a far better person than the one six feet under, and she works hard to maintain her illusion, as if somehow by being merely present when he died, she is responsible for his legacy. However, things take a darker turn when she is drawn into his nefarious business affairs.

In talking about her play, Sarah Ruhl has stated her intent to depict ways in which these devices that are meant to foster communication actually induce isolation among people, allowing people to avoid reaching out to strangers because they have an ever-present link to those they already know. It is true that we rarely see people strike up conversations with strangers in public places, instead being in the thrall of their phones. On the other hand, those phones are likely to be tracking messages from strangers, by way of tweets, Facebook posts, mass emails, and other platforms, rather than someone the user actually knows. It seems that what has occurred is not so much choosing those we already know over connecting with strangers, but connecting with strangers from a safe distance rather than reaching out to those at the next table, sitting beside us on a bus, or beside us in line at the post office.

In Dead Man's Cell Phone, Jean does reach out to strangers unleashed through the phone, but in doing so, distorts them into a romantic fantasy. There is no indication that Jean has any life of her own. She does mention her job at the Holocaust Museum—and certainly, exposed day after day to the artifacts of that trauma, one can be forgiven for indulging in escapist fantasy—but, in another absurdist leap, she has all the time and money in the world to pursue her cell-phone induced dream. It is only after she comes to the shocking realization that she has been totally deluded that she is able to reach out for something real, something not based on wishful thinking and na├»ve optimism.

If Ruhl's play gets off track as a treatise on the specter of humanity's growing isolation, it would be redeemed by a vein of humor in the unspooling of her absurd, and at times grisly, yarn. Unfortunately, the humor is spotty. There are some pretty good segments where the situation and the characters meld drawn-out comic elements, but also long stretches that attest to the playwright's abundant imagination but do not stir much response, neither of humor nor compassion.

Among the most arresting moments are Gordon's lover's demonstration of how a woman should magnify her air of glamour by the way she applies lipstick in public, and a long monologue that opens the second act in which Gordon, speaking from the grave, details his unsavory line of work, his disdain for the people in his life, and how he came to be sitting across from Jean on that fateful day. An attempt by Gordon's mother to sing along with a hymn during his funeral is outright hilarious. In each case it is hard to separate the adept performances (Briana Bolden as the Other Woman, Nick Menzhuber as Gordon, and Jane Burke as Mrs. Gottlieb) from the text. As Hermia, Kate Beahan delivers a confession of her behaviors during sex with her late husband that is presented to chilling effect, albeit lacking in humor. Phillip Hoelscher unleashes the play's one moment of true heart as the underachieving brother Dwight, a sad sack waiting for happiness to strike.

Katie Strom Rozanas gives a winning performance in the central role of Jean, a blank-slate every-person, who seems almost desperate to draw some color and definition to herself though her intrepid entry into the world of Gordon Gottlieb. She does convey a kind of transformation that occurs by way of her sojourn through Gordon's world, both in this and the next life, and enables us to believe Jean's final resolution, a transformation that is barely earned by the text, but which we believe thanks to Rozanas' efforts.

Director Scott Ford keeps all of the scenes moving briskly, and wisely treats the absurdities in the narrative as reasonable scenes from everyday life, so that while we see the flights from reality taking place, the characters behave at all times as if everything is completely normal. The design and tech credits are all up to Lyric Arts' high standard, with Jim Eischen's projections seamlessly guiding us from scene to scene.

Dead Man's Cell Phone came to life between two of Ruhl's signature works, The Clean House and In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play), both finalists for Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2005 and 2010, respectively. Dead Man's Cell Phone is a lesser work than those two, clever and imaginative, but one that loses its way from its initial inquiry into our channels of communication. It is engaging enough to enjoy a visit, but will not likely prompt audience members to turn on their phones right after the show with fresh insights to share.

Dead Man's Cell Phone, through January 27, 2019, at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage, 420 East Main Street, Anoka MN. Tickets from $30.00 - $26.00; seniors $28.00 - $24.00; Age 25 and younger $25.00 - $21.00. For information and tickets call 763-422-1838 or visit lyricarts.org.

Playwright: Sarah Ruhl; Director: Scott Ford; Scenic, Lighting and Projection Design: Jim Eischen; Costume Design: Lucas Skjaret; Sound Design: Jason Hobbie; Props Design: Katie Phillips; Composer: Dan Dukich; Stage Manager: Samson Perry; Assistant Stage Managers: Allison Peterson and Kelley Yount.

Cast: Katie Beahan (Hermia), Briana Bolden (The Other Woman), Jane Burke (Mrs. Gottlieb), Phillip Hoelscher (Dwight), Nick Menzhuber (Gordon), Katie Strom Rozanas (Jean).


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