In most cinematic car chases, there's a moment when the fleeing car ducks down an alley or jumps the median strip and heads off across a cornfield to freedom. Of course, if we ever tried those maneuvers ourselves, it would be a dead-end alley or the car would get stuck in mud, sealing our doom. That's the difference between fantasy and reality, and we get it.
Playwright Sarah Ruhl does the same kind of thing in Dead Man's Cell Phone, now at Dobama Theatre. Due to a wild and fanciful digression, her play winds up cornered and spinning its wheels in the late going. But up to that point, this production is amusing and engrossing, featuring an absolutely stunning bit of acting in the lead role.
The unambiguous title tells you much of what you need to know, since within the first couple minutes a man, Gordon, has dropped dead sitting in his chair at a café. But then his cell phone rings, and the only other patron, a mousy woman named Jean, gently asks him if he's "going to get that."
Once she detects the droopy-headed gentleman is in fact toast, she answers his phone and begins running interference between Gordon and those trying to reach him. Of course, since the corpse's girlfriend, his wife Hermia, brother Dwight, and mother Mrs. Gottlieb assume Jean was a close friend of Gordon's, they ply her with questions about his final moments. And Jean supplies the fabricated answers, in an attempt to make everyone feel better about Gordo.
Soon Jean meets those folks in person, each rendezvous arranged via the ubiquitous cell phone, and the imaginary Gordon that Jean has created begins to change Jean's real life in extraordinary ways. She embroiders tender "last words" from Gordon, along with cobbling together modest parting gifts (sister Hermia gets a salt shaker because, as Jean explains, "he wanted you to have this because he said you were the salt of the earth").
Jean even pretends she was a co-worker with Gordon, and when they ask her if she was "outgoing" or "incoming," she guesses the latter. Once we learn his occupation, their unusual reactions become quite understandable.
In the second act, Gordon shows up in a very down-to-earth heaven (apparently there's a Laundromat there, since you have to wash your one and only garment). He comments on his family, his disgust with his wife, and other reflections.
Up to this point, Dead Man's Cell Phone is fascinating and consistently amusing, tweaking our shared penchant for palliative falsehoods and the technological age. It shows how the devices we own begin to own us, shaping our lives and revising our personalities in unforeseen ways. Even post mortem.
But as is her wont, Ruhl then dives off into magical realism in scenes that abandon the storyline she has established, evidently hoping to land bigger thematic fish. But these determined digressions succeed only in muddying the water and dragging down what had been a most promising narrative.
In the linchpin role of Jean, Tracee Patterson is a marvel. Physically small but mentally determined, Jean is shy, deferential, and well-meaning even as she begins to polish her ongoing lies to a sheen. Joel Hammer is compelling as Gordon, pressing all the right buttons in his Act Two monologue. As the prickly Mrs. Gottlieb, Paula Duesing is a priceless foul-mouthed old lady who grills meat on a daily basis and cusses out those whose cell phones ring in church.
Hermia has a crackling scene with Jean in a bar, where Maryann Elder shows how to play drunk by trying desperately to appear sober, making the moment even more comical. And Tom Woodward as Dwight creates some nice interplay with Jean, as these two lost souls carve out their own little safe space. In a small but effective role, Dianne Boduszek as the Other Woman shares her own twisted view of the departed Gordon.
Though the pace seems desultory at times, director Scott Miller makes it all work, using Ruhl's imaginative language to great humorous effect. But it's hard to imagine any director being able to corral the last half-hour of this show and turn it into something other than confusing.
The set design by Mark Jenks doesn't help much, since it has ramps and steps, some accented with irregular shapes that aren't evocative of anything in particular. And the scenes in "heaven" are not aided by any special lighting or set pieces, which seems like an opportunity missed.
Ultimately, technology will quickly obsolete this script, since many of us already text more than we talk. And that will lead us into a whole new possibility for a play. Let's hope, if Sarah Ruhl writes it, she stays a bit more focused when she answers that call.
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