Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Dead Man's Cell Phone (The SOB Review)

Dead Man's Cell Phone (The SOB Review) - Upstairs Theatre, Steppen-wolf, Chicago, IL

*** (out of ****)

There's a mighty fine line between pretty lonely and awfully sad in Sarah Ruhl's inspired, new Dead Man's Cell Phone. If it has a familiar ring, it's because it serves as a contemporary fairy tale.

The play opened April 6 at Chicago's Steppenwolf, just weeks after the same show (different production) made its New York debut at Playwrights' Horizons.

Under Jessica Thebus' smart and savvy direction, Dead Man’s Cell Phone stylishly pays homage to realist painter Edward Hopper’s body of work thanks to the show's evocative designs including Scott Bradley's sophisticated set, James F. Ingalls' subtly dim lighting and Linda Roethke's vibrant costumes. They contribute to Ruhl's twist worthy of a modern-day Sister Grimm.

Certainly, few moments in the play actually ring true. There's an inadvertent connection made between ditzy loner Jean (a credibly kooky Polly Noonan) and the family of the recently deceased Gordon (Marc Grapey, who provides the best post-mortem performance I've seen in ages) after she finds him dead in a restaurant and absconds with his continually ringing cell phone. Jean then worms her way into the spoiled apple of a family.

Never one to be placed on hold, Jean stalks, stating emphatically, “I want to remember everything. Even other people’s memories.” No matter that Jean has a history of failure in connecting with others. It’s more than a little ironic that her bridge to the living is through the cell phone of the newly deceased.

Ceasing upon the moment, as well as the property, Jean possesses a scary sense of entitlement to the phone, which becomes anthropomorphized, continuing to live Gordon's life even after he is gone. Taking what does not belong to her, she creates a shadow life of her own that opens doors to love and life itself.

But like any good fairy tale, there are consequences to her deeds, as she learns. Just because you hijack someone else’s life doesn't make it your own. Also as in fairy tales, there's sweetness and light around the edges, but fiery peril at the core. Ruhl relies upon some well-placed imagery, whether it's the precariously delicate nature of Bradley's paper houses symbolic of the paper-thin security each offers or the mother of the eponymous character’s hellish experience with an open pit barbeque.

Speaking of that last character, one of the most deliciously real and flat-out funny moments in the play occurs when familiar chimes from errant hand-held devices throughout the audience begin to chirp (courtesy of Andre Pluess' ingenious sound design) … all during Gordon’s funeral as he’s being eulogized by the wonderfully sardonic Molly Regan portraying his mother, Mrs. Gottlieb (quite ironically, the name translates to "God’s love"). Mrs. Gottlieb offers stern admonitions to turn the cell phones off, no doubt giving voice to every stage performer who has ever had to suffer the indignities of the callous, thoughtless audience members who failed to silence their ringers.

The moral of this story appears not only to turn those pesky things off, but also to avoid taking that which does not belong to us, be it a phone or usurping others' memories. It's better than any bed time story I've enjoyed in a long time.

Performances of Dead Man's Cell Phone run through July 27.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.

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At 17 March, 2010, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

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