Sunday, February 14, 2016

Review: Dead Man's Cell Phone

'Dead Man's Cell Phone' is full of techno hand-wringing about how cell phones have dehumanized relationships. Toby Zinman found Simpatico's production all too quirky.

Review: Dead Man's Cell Phone


By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer

This is the theme of Sarah Ruhl’s self-consciously quirky play, Dead Man’s Cell Phone: “Cell phones, iPods, wireless computers will change people in ways we don’t even understand,” Ruhl told John Lahr in a New Yorker interview. “We’re less connected to the present. No one is where they are. There’s absolutely no reason to talk to a stranger anymore — you connect to people you already know. But how well do you know them? Because you never see them — you just talk to them. I find that terrifying.”

However insightful this techno-handwringing might have seemed in 2007 when Ruhl wrote Dead Man’s Cell Phone, it’s old hat now. And although Simpatico Theatre Project’s production gives it lots of room to quirk, the play is less funny, less mordant and less substantial than we have come to expect from Ruhl (The Clean House, Eurydice, In the Next Room, or, the vibrator play).

The story begins in a café, where a young woman, Jean (the excellent Kate Brennan), is irritated by a phone ringing, unanswered, on a nearby table occupied by a man. Eventually, she gets up, asking, “Aren’t you going to get that?” only to discover the man, Gordon (Carl Granieri), is dead. She answers the phone, and gets involved in with the people in Gordon’s life — his wife (Erin DeBlois Read), his mistress (Annette Kaplafka), his mother (Nancy Ellis), his brother (Matt Lorenz), and will eventually discover what  his repulsive business is. She  makes up comforting stories for each of the bereaved.

The first act is almost entirely a cartoon (aspiring to Roz Chast-ness, but falling far short), except for Brennan’s performance as Jean; her subtlety of gesture makes the character human). The second act, all about love, is surprisingly sentimental, and suddenly zooms into weird sci-fi zone where there are planets of dead people.  The scene changes are arch (look at me, look at me carry a chair) and take far too long. The entire production under Jill Harrison’s direction seems to require our constant admiration for its quirky cuteness.

There are some amusing observations: Gordon’s mother notes that it used to be that people wearing black were in mourning, but now everyone wears black all the time and “we live in a state of perpetual mourning.”  There’s much claptrap about people continuing to exist as long as people keep calling them, and the play’s laments for the loss of silence, of privacy and of dignity are as current as dial-up.

Presented by Simpatico Theatre Project through Oct. 23 at the Walnut Street Theatre's Independence Studio, 9th and Walnut Streets. Tickets: $8-$17.50.



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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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