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Arts & Entertainment

Review: 'Dead Man's Cell Phone'

From Issue: Volume XXI - Number 12

By Ben Miles

Dramatist Sarah Ruhl’s 2007 play, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” – winner of that year’s Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play – is now on the boards at Long Beach’s International City Theatre. Known for her nonlinear approach to plot structure, as well as for her jaunts into the realm of magical realism —replete with wild wonderments, cryptic insights and sordid intrigue — Ruhl’s writing relies less on exposition and psychology than on the more ancient Aristotelian tenets of drama and theatrical imagination.
Now director Richard Israel and his capable ICT cast and crew (the latter includes set designer D Martyn Bookwalter, lighting designer Jeremy Pivnick, costumier Kim DeShazo and sound designer David Mickey), are staging Ruhl’s script in strict obedience to the scribe’s artistic vision. After all, it is Ruhl who once declaimed, “I try to interpret how people subjectively experience life. Everyone has a great, horrible opera inside him,” she insisted. “I feel that my plays, in a way, are very old-fashioned.”

Perhaps everything old-fashioned can be newly fashioned or refitted to a new era, but like other Ruhl plays (such as 2005’s“The Clean House”), in action the wispy “Cell Phone” seems vaguely contemporary.

Jean, a 40 year-old Jean Holocaust museum worker (the vulnerable Alina Phelan), is seated in a café when a cell phone begins ringing at a nearby table; much to Jean’s consternation the telephone continues to ring. After much pleading with the man to answer his calls, Jean realizes that – as the title reveals – the cell phone’s owner is dead. Though Jean alerts 911 services to the situation, she keeps the man’s phone as a way of keeping him alive in the memories of those who call and express concerned for the deceased; Jean, who becomes enthralled with the dead man, tries to ameliorate the grief and sadness surrounding the man’s death by attending his funeral, confabulating tales of the dead man’s final moments in order to bring comfort to the survivors, and to herself.

Ironically, the more that is revealed about the dead man – we come to know him as Gordon – the more clearly we see what a truly awful person he was (Trent Dawson plays Gordon in a glib turn; Dawson also displays his range and versatility characterizing Gordon’s nondescript younger brother, Dwight).
In strange and unexpected turns, we find ourselves exposed to nefarious international organ exchanges, black-market body parts, as well as kidney donations. Nevertheless, in view of Gordon’s moral deprivation, Jean is dedicated to reinventing Gordon’s unsavory self in order to bring peace and closure to his family and associates.
“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is a fanciful dramedy, comedic in spirit, but at its root it’s a disturbing commentary on technology and its potential to isolate people as much as it brings them together. Interestingly, though penned less than a decade ago, “Cell Phone” already seems a product of its time – pre twitter, prior to instant messaging and long before the advent of texting – the existential question, nonetheless, still remains: can we be whole when our relationships are maintained largely through disembodied communiqués?

In addition to the nuanced portrays rendered by Phelan and Dawson, Susan Diol and Heather Roberts each light the stage in their distinct roles, while Eileen T’Kaye commands the room in her performance as Mrs. Gottlieb.

“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is an irreverent look at technology and social alienation. The more connected we are the more unhinged we may become. This production unfolds over two acts, lasting about two-hours.

“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” continues at the International City Theatre through June 30. ICT is located at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 East Ocean Boulevard, Long Beach. Evening performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.
Matinees are Sundays at 2 p.m. For reservations, call (562) 436-4610. For online ticketing and further information, visit