Matthew Reddin
“Dead Man’s Cell Phone”

Good conversation, fuzzy connection

By - Nov 7th, 2011 04:24 pm
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Kelly Coffee and Nate Press in an August public reading of “Dead Man’s Cell Phone.” Photo from Pink Banana Facebook page.

Woman in a room with a man she doesn’t know. His cell phone rings. She answers. Turns out, the guy’s dead. Her life changes.

Sounds like an acting exercise, doesn’t it? That’s the premise of Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, now playing at Pink Banana Theatre. Consciously or not, director Alan Piotrowicz and his cast have picked up the meta-theatrical thread. Much of the play, especially the opening scene, has a staged, self-aware feel.

The surreality of that first scene colors the rest of the play. The protagonist, Jean (Kelly Coffey) sits alone in a café, content until the dead man’s cell phone rings and entraps her. She fends off telemarketers, takes his mother’s message, and then finally calls for help when she realizes that this Gordon fellow is deceased.

“I’ll stay with you, Gordon,” she tells the dead man (Nathanael Press), in the moments before the lights go down at the end of the scene. “As long as you need me.”

But it’s he who stays with her, living on in the totemic cell phone Jean can’t give up. She slips into Gordon’s life, meeting his coarsely blunt mother (Joan End), his widow Hermia (Layna Davis), his shy brother Dwight (Luke Erickson) and his exotic, spellbinding mistress (Liz Shipe). The actors animate this collection of characters brilliantly. Gordon’s death leaves all of them distressed, but they stubbornly hide that insecurity behind the masks they’ve learned to put up over the years.

Jean discovers quickly that Gordon has left a number of loose ends — neither his wife nor mistress know whether he loves them or not. His brother feels overshadowed and under appreciated. His mother believes he died never wanting to speak to her. Jean takes it upon herself to rectify these lapses with a series of lies that sound true. It’s not the only oxymoronic contradiction in the play, but it’s the most fascinating.

The play’s primary symbol is the cell phone (and the technological society that spawned it). But the metaphor’s meaning stays irrevocably ambiguous. Jean is both connected and disconnected to people by Gordon’s phone. Dead Man’s Cell Phone never truly decides whether technology is a social good or evil.

It also never really decides what kind of play it wants to be. It wavers between a literal, physical story and a symbolic, metaphysical exploration, especially in the plot-twisty second act. It never seems to find resolution. Perhaps it’s intentional. Perhaps the twist partway through Act II is purposefully out of sync with the rest of the play. Perhaps the uneasy mix of reality and fantasy is to show us how the world isn’t as simple as we’d like it to be. But it doesn’t change the uneasy feeling I still had in the pit of my stomach hours after leaving the theater.

Not every play needs a concrete, satisfying conclusion, of course. But something’s off about the way Dead Man’s Cell Phone simply stops, like a dropped call.

Pink Banana’s production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone runs through Nov. 12 at the Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water St. All shows are at 8 p.m. and tickets are $18. Purchase at Pink Banana’s online box office.

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