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Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Dead Man's Cell Phone
Ross Valley Players
Review by Jeanie K. Smith | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's reviews of Bamboozled, Office Hour and Weightless

Steve Price and Deborah Murphy
Photo by Gregg Le Blanc
American playwright Sarah Ruhl has made much success over the last 15 years, garnering awards and the prestigious MacArthur Foundation grant, with plays that celebrate the quirky, emotional, messy and unpredictable in life. Dead Man's Cell Phone is no exception, surreal in style, lost in non-linear time, and occasionally feeling disjunct and scattered. The Ross Valley Players production brings the play to life with some laugh-out-loud moments and touching human connections.

Enjoying lunch in a cafe, Jean (Deborah Murphy) is at first annoyed, then slightly outraged at a persistently ringing cell phone. Finally approaching the man at the nearby table, she discovers he isn't just being rude—he's actually in rigor mortis. Following what she later says is an imperative to answer a ringing phone, she picks up the man's phone, takes a long look at him, and says to the caller, "No, he's not. Can I take a message?" Learning the man's name is Gordon (Steve Price), Jean commandeers his cell phone, appointing herself a kind of post-mortem secretary, fielding calls from business colleagues as well as family members and mistresses.

As she insinuates herself into Gordon's life (or death as the case may be), Jean comes face to face with a former lover (Nan Ayers), his mother Mrs. Gottlieb (Christine Macomber), his brother Dwight (Peter Warden), and his wife Hermia (Marilyn Hughes). Jean discovers the failures in Gordon's relationships, and seeks to mend them by making up "last words" that Gordon supposedly delivered before he died. Little white lies, perhaps, intended to help the grieving loved ones deal with death, but unintended consequences begin to pile up. And apparently there's much she needs to learn about the "real" Gordon.

Jean and Dwight themselves strike up a relationship, but it founders when Jean refuses to let go of Gordon's cell phone. Questions abound regarding the place of technology in our lives, some of which sound rather cliched now, but it still remains for us to decide—boon or burden? Communication enhancement or interference? Improved connection or impediment? The pendulum swings both ways in Ruhl's play, truly leaving it up to the audience to make the determination.

Act two moves us into the Beyond, where we get to hear Gordon speak of his earthly desires and his shady occupation, with some whimsical theology thrown in. Jean's attempt to correct Gordon's failings and make him better than he was lands her in hot water—or, perhaps, the afterlife—and the various plot threads begin to unravel furiously in search of resolution. Is there a point? Ruhl steers clear of conventional messages in favor of emotional therapy, but even that can feel stunted, as when Jean begs Dwight to really love her so that they won't be alone when they die.

Some of Ruhl's whimsy is a little too precious or contrived, and her lack of focus turns dizzying at the end, but there's a steadfast happiness the characters cling to, ultimately giving the play an upbeat sense of hope.

Murphy as Jean plays well for sweetness and naivete, but misses some of the opportunity for Ruhl's dry, deadpan humor. Price is an excellent, somewhat smarmy Gordon, and Warden makes a great earnest-but-hapless Dwight. Other characters seem miscast or too broadly played.

Lighting is uniformly dim, and the corrugated set serves as a bland backdrop for lackluster set pieces. Bruce Vieira's sound design dishes up appropriate mood music, and Michael Berg's costuming helps delineate character. Director Chloe Bronzan overall executes good staging of the piece, but fails to find some of the humor.

Ruhl's non-linear writing style can be difficult to stage, and can leave an audience wondering what it's all about. But Ross Valley Players' production manages to convey the quirky fun and surrealistic plot devices, and guarantees some post-show musings on the future fate of cell phones.

Dead Man's Cell Phone, through March 25, 2018, by Ross Valley Players, at The Barn Theater at Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross CA. Tickets $12.00-$27.00 can be purchased online at or by phone at 415-456-9555.

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