Dead Man’s Cell Phone opens in a coffee shop. A man sits below an abstract painting, facing the wall, perfectly still. A woman sits quietly enjoying a bowl of soup. Silence. The man’s cell phone rings. It rings again, and again, and again. The woman looks around. She addresses the man. He doesn’t answer. The phone rings again.
This opening is perfectly timed and the scene is drawn out as long and uncomfortably as possible without losing the tension. The director, Gil Reyes, makes use of the silence and space between Jean (Susan Brooks), the woman, and the man (Gordon). Jean’s utter discomfort is made painfully obvious by Brooks’ wide expressive eyes and her clear, tentative voice. Everything about Brooks’ performance is heightened and filled, and she is especially interesting in this moment, holding the stage alone for several tense moments. When Jean decides to answer the phone herself, she begins her relationship with the dead man, his cell phone, and the family that is trying to reach him through it.
From here on is an absurd journey where Jean meets Gordon’s oddball mother, Mrs. Gottlieb, played with larger-than-life eccentricity by Becky LeCron; his widow, Hermia (Dara Jade Tiller); and his brother, Dwight (Ryan Lash). Love affairs ensue as well as trips to the other side as Jean realizes with disappointment that Gordon (Robert McFarland) – whom she loves in spite of his being dead – is not such a great guy after all.
The ethereal dreamlike nature of the play and its elements of absurdity make it a deeply challenging piece for the audience – and I’m sure for the performers. There are parts where the pace of the play slows, particularly toward the end of Act I. Because the piece itself is so ethereal, it can begin to feel as if it is meandering in places. This happens more when the actors play the absurdity of the situation, particularly in the dinner scene following the reveal of Gordon’s death. The performances are strongest when the emotions come from a place of real pain, as when Jean is caught in a purgatory-like place with Gordon. When she realizes it could be forever, her loneliness becomes palpable even though the situation is unrealistic.
However, there’s a great clarity in Reyes’ direction, a cleanness that grounds the play in its own reality; he finds a way to make sense of the odd situations the characters find themselves in. It is designed with a love for the theatrical, and both Reyes and Designer Karl Anderson have an eye for pretty details (the white origami houses opening on a clothesline) and simple touches that are intended to dazzle, and somehow they do.
Robert McFarland as Gordan is an unsettling presence on stage. He has been cast more than once as the smoothly confident, truth telling, not-quite-human being; his knowing smile and smooth confidence combined with his physical height give him an other-worldly quality. His description of the taste and texture of mushy and merely serviceable lentils is delivered with careful concern. I could imagine his disappointment that this should be his last meal, as Jean slurps the last drops of Lobster Bisque.
It’s wonderful to see poetic work like this. It’s a departure for , but it feels like an inevitable one. They seem to favor the poetic, but past seasons have often been devoted to love and relationships. This play is a little more ambitious, a grown-up play grappling with the deeper philosophical issues of our age.
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