Theater Review: “Dead Mans Cell Phone” Has Weak Signal

In the newest of her lyrically surreal plays, Sarah Ruhl, in effect, raises the Verizon man’s perpetual query – “Can you hear me now?” – to existential profundity. The mobile phone, our symbol of modern hyper-connectedness, illustrates our emotional isolation.

The Seattle premiere production of “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” at ArtsWest, however, also suffers some disconnect.

When a man dies at a table in a non-descript café, Jean picks up his ringing phone and inadvertently steps into his life. She knows nothing of the deceased Gordon Gottlieb, yet feels compelled to follow through with the loose threads of his existence. As long as the phone keeps ringing, she notes, he’s not really dead.

Of course, Gordon was no saint, and his dysfunctional family and unsavory business provide a raft of absurdities for the confused Jean to step into.

Emily Grogan is the ingenuous do-gooder Jean, a seeker of approval who eagerly lies to Gordon’s bereaved about his last words and acts to salve their bitterness. Yet Jean also suffers an emptiness that her cell phone adventures try to fill with self-delusion. “I only knew him a short time,” she coos untruthfully, as she never saw him breathing, “but I think I love him.”

Like Alice down the rabbit hole, Jean engages with the oddballs in Gordon’s fractured former life. Kate Witt gives a deliciously dark and comic turn as Gordon’s femme fatale mistress and Julie Jamieson is forbidding as his fox fur draped, judgmental mother. Tim Gouran is the timid, childlike second-rate brother Dwight that offers Jean an unfulfilled romantic interest, and Peggy Gannon applies comic skill to the sloshed sexual confessions of Gordon’s widow Hermia.

 

Yet it’s Mike Dooly, as the deceased man himself, who offers the liveliest time on stage. In Gordon’s post-mortem explanations, Dooly portrays a hardened businessman who uses his own charisma to sell himself on the virtue of his contemptible, bloodstained trade.

Technology is not the culprit, nor even the center of Ruhl’s take on our alienated condition, yet it recognizes that the illusion of connectedness it offers can be mistaken for the love we lack. “Connecting people” is what Gordon insists he does, ignoring how he commodifies them. Even Gordon’s family name means “God’s love,” his mother notes as she admits she feels none.

This is deep stuff, but director Carol Roscoe sometimes prefers to play up the character’s wackiness more than their psychic pain. Part of the difficulty is that cream complexioned Grogan appears too young for the role (jarring when Jean says she is nearly 40), and plays her as a wax tablet upon which others write. Lacking her own depth of distress, Grogan feels acted upon in this Wonderland rather than making sharp choices of her own.

While enjoyable for the laughs it spawns, there is more in Ruhl’s play that this production of it brings out.  It tantalizes and disappoints like a dropped call.

“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” runs through Oct. 3 at ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery, 4711 California Ave. SW. Tickets: $32, $10 for under 25; (206) 938-0339 or www.artswest.org

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