Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Dead Man's Cell Phone
St. Louis Theatre Group
Ivory Theatre

Also see Sarah's reviews of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You and The Eight: Reindeer Monologues and Bob's review of A Christmas Story

Elana Kepner and Ray Shea
Imagine Dick Cheney playing a black-market criminal mastermind, snarling his way through a bizarre and touching comedy by Sarah Ruhl, and you've pretty much got the picture of the St. Louis Theatre Group production of this delightfully strange play. But don't bother to hint around to actor Ray Shea that he's copying the former vice president because, apparently, he won't get it. After one performance, when asked to sneer in that now-familiar, drooping triangular way (without being told why), or to quack like Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, the actor could only stare back in bafflement. It's probably better this way: his performance is perfectly authentic, miles from parody; it's merely coincidental that he's a delightful doppelganger for the number-two man in the recent Bush administration, creating chills of terror among his family, even from the grave. For those of a certain political persuasion, the charm of all this should be obvious.

Mr. Cheney—or rather, Mr. Shea—doesn't really make his "evil" presence known till act two. Till then, the same actor is mostly busy on stage as his timid, nebbishy brother Dwight. That performance, opposite leading lady Elana Kepner, is entirely separate and distinct from the other and, thanks to both him and Ms. Kepner, their on-stage romance is perfectly touching. Mr. Shea's unexpected, fast changes between Dwight and his snarling brother Gordon in act two also add a layer of excitement to the story.

Not that it needs it. The lovable, Ms. Kepner earnest Jean follows a series of voice mails through Gordon's life, via his cell phone, introducing us to his weird, uneasy family. Judith MacDonald freshens up the standard Lady Bracknell act, as his mother, with a funny eulogy for her late son, in which she segues into a diatribe against the Blackberry and the iPhone and their ilk; and Jamie Pitt seems unstoppably comical as his widow (even when she's not gliding by in chiffon and roller-skates). Julia Mager is sweller than swell as his unbearably haughty mistress, and later as a hilarious Natasha Fatale-type during a black-market exchange that lands us squarely in a despairing netherworld. There's plenty of pretty talk about metaphysics and the ghosts of cell phone messages drifting forever in the ether, but director Shane P. Mullen never gets bogged down in those, keeping the pace tight and the action mostly natural, and leaving the metaphysics to his highly qualified cast.

Mr. Mullen's light touch also allows the actors to swagger delightfully and play with a bizarre air of mystery till the skullduggery sets in, in act two. Equal to all of the intrigue is the tenderness supplied by Ms. Kepner, leading to a harvest of shock and dread when a deadly scuffle erupts in a faraway airport terminal. Overall, the resounding clash between her character's goodness and Mr. Shea's remorseless evil adds a lot of flash to Ms. Ruhl's dialog, and the entire cast floats along, balancing misguided affection with the steady background hum of suspense.

Dead Man's Cell Phone, through December 19th, 2009. Tickets should be plentiful in the lovely, spacious Ivory Theatre (7622 Ivory/Michigan, St. Louis 63111, east of I-55 between the Loughborough and Gasconade exits), but for more information you can call (314) 631-8330 or visit

Elana Kepner: A Woman (Jean)
Ray Shea: A Dead Man (Gordon)
Julia Mager: The Other Woman
Judith MacDonald: Gordon's Mother (Mrs. Gottlieb)
Jamie Pitt: Gordon's Widow (Hermia)
Ray Shea: Gordon's Brother (Dwight)
Julia Mager: The Stranger

Director: Shane P. Mullen
Assistant Director: Rachel Melton
Stage Manager: Gina Abbott
Assistant Stage Manager: Grace Palmer
House Manager: Matthew Z. Connor
Lighting & Audio Design: DJ Kent
Lighting Direction: Matthew Z. Conner
Audio Engineering: Shane P. Mullen, Rachel Melton Dennis, W. Gorg
Sound: Rachel Melton
Set Design: Mark Ralson
Costumes & Props: Rachel Melton, Gina Abbott

Photo by Jenny Krethmar

-- Richard T. Green

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