Posted by: strugglesome | October 3, 2011

Can You Hear Me Now? Simpatico Theatre Project’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone

All Photos by Kyle Cassidy

The digital age has really altered the definition of the word “stranger”. A stranger used to be someone you’d never physically met before. But now you can meet people in all kinds of ways, in chat rooms and on facebook and through newspaper personal ads, over the phone and through the airwaves to grandmother’s house we go. So who do we know better, the people with whom we talk all day who live halfway across the world, or the people with whom we spend every day and never actually speak to? What does connection actually mean in an age of missed calls and gchats? And after you die, what happens to all of your digital identities? We spend so much time building artificial selves and displaying them that we rarely stop to consider the fact that someday we will die, and all that will be left of us is our tweets. Or our address books, stored on our cell phones. At least, that’s what becomes of the life of Gordon Gottlieb, the titular character (or at least possessive noun) in Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, which is currently being presented by Simpatico Theatre Project.

Gordon (Carl Granieri) expires quietly in a cafe one morning; the only witnesses to his demise are a stranger, Jean (Kate Brennan) and a cell phone. But even after Gordon is gone, the phone just keeps on ringing, and Jean, like a prophet on a mountain top, can’t help but answer the call. And so begins Jean’s entanglement with Gordon’s family, questionable career, mistress, life, and afterlife. Compelled as Jean is to answer the cell phone, which simply will not stop ringing, she soon finds herself invited over to dinner by Gordon’s cold-as-Connecticut mother, Mrs. Gottlieb (Nancy Ellis), sparing with his girlfriend (Anntte Kaplafka) and comforting his brother Dwight (Matt Lorenz) and widow, Hermia (Erin Read).  She gets involved in the trafficking of human organs and the negotiations of the soul. Like a modern-day Emma in clogs and a shaggy sweater (costume design by Laila Swanson) Jean weaves a web of well-meant lies to try to create a kinder, gentler Gordon, posthumously, at leas. She is, as Mrs. Gottleib describes her, “like a very small casserole”, comforting and warm.  And for a little while it seems to work. But as Jean gets more and more entrenched in the life and telephone of a stranger, she loses herself in the Gordon she has created. Imagine her surprise when she ends up in his afterlife, and has to confront the real deal. Will Jean vanquish her organ-selling suitor, and make it back to the adoring and endearing Dwight and a life without a dial tone, or will she be stuck forever in a land of missed-calls and selfish men? I wouldn’t want to ruin any surprises, so I’m not going to tell you, but rest assured, despite it’s multiple sharp left turns, Ruhl’s work goes where you want it to, eventually.

I had always assumed that Dead Man’s Cell Phone came before Eurydice, Ruhl’s play about the after life, love and elevators, but it turns out that it really came afterward.  It’s odd because while both plays touch on the same themes, family, connection, the afterlife, Eurydice feels like the more coherent play. Dead Man’s Cell Phone bears all the trademark’s you would expect of Ruhl’s candid and captivating writing, the frank awkward humor, the plain but poetic truths, the real things happening in unreal places, it has each one in spades. But this play also has some issues in its pace and it’s sense of coherence, playing fast and loose as it does with time and space, splitting focus on more than one occasion, stretching the logical boundaries of this world a bit, and it’s journey into the whimsical doesn’t always bring the audience with it. Though some momentum is lost towards the end of the play, director Jill Harrison works to make the focal points clear and in many ways she succeeds; we follow the love story of Jean and Dwight eagerly, and it’s conclusion thrills us. This production has decided that this play is about two people who, despite all the false ways to connect in the universe, have actually found a real way to get together, and given how satisfying that is, it’s not a bad conclusion to draw, all things considered. With all the missed connections and information flying out into ether, it’s just nice to see two people actually getting the message.

Staged in the Walnut Street Theater’s intimate Studio 3, this production has coated the play in cold blue tones, which are generally appropriate, if a little harsh. David Todaro’s icy lighting design makes nice use of the space, finding shadows and shapes and neatly establishing different worlds in the blackbox. He is aided by Christopher Haig’s unbelievably clever set design, whose economy and charm are consistently impressive and effective. Swanson’s costume design walks the line between overly precious and sweetly attractive, and Ryan Hansen’s sound design is neatly understated. . If there is one complaint that can be made, it is that the gorgeous and usually forgotten window situated in the back of the space could have been used more in this production. It’s a beautiful (and free) piece of scenery that no one ever remembers is there.

Brennan’s Jean starts out tentative, her desires and motivations unclear underneath all the humor, but as the play moves on she becomes clearer, more specific, and beautifully desperate to find something to love in the most unlovable Gordon. Ruhl’s writing can bear some of the responsibility for Brennan’s initial faltering, it requires very strong decisions to be made about why Jean, who doesn’t even own a cell phone, feels the compulsive need to take someone else’s and then insert herself into that person’s life. So if we aren’t really sure why Brennan’s Jean starts down this path, at least by the end of the play we understand her, and even empathize with her, for doing so. Lorenz’s Dwight, on the other hand, is instantly recognizable and hopelessly endearing. Cowed by Ellis’ Mommy Dearest (who is her best when she’s politely driving in the knife of WASPy passive aggression and her worst when she’s playing upset) and lost in a sea of always being second-best to his slimy older sibling, Lorenz plays hopeless but hopeful seamlessly and well.  And speaking of his prodigal brother, Granieri’s Gordon is deliciously self-righteous and slick, just listening to him makes you need a shower, and if he’s a little one-dimensional, well, that’s kind of the point. Gordon in reality doesn’t exist, he’s dead, he has become a collection of other people’s perceptions, which is what we all become, when we die, right? Kaplafka’s Other Woman is a bit of a cartoon, taking more from the character name then the text, but Read’s Hermia is fantastic, especially in a scene in which she is on her fourth martini. The next time you need a drink, Hermia, just text me, I’ll be there, I promise.

But as we all know, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There are flaws in this play, and this production, and not everyone has been inducted into the cult of Ruhl’s cannon, but if you buy into her blend of whimsy and reality, you can’t help but leave Simpatico’s sincerely and well made Dead Man’s Cell Phone without feeling like you’ve taken a trip, and ended up somewhere better than you started.  Simpatico Theatre Project’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone runs from now until the 23rd of October. Pick up tickets here.

Questions? Comments? I welcome them all! Please feel free to ad your thoughts below!

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