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.