Some guys seem hell-bent on irritating the people around them with their obnoxious phone manners. In a practically deserted diner, Jean gets so annoyed by the unremitting ringing of Gordon Gottlieb’s cell that she answers it. It turns out that he’s got a good reason for not returning his calls: he’s dead. Jean’s simple act of answering a stranger’s phone sets her on a life-changing adventure. It links her with Gordon’s strange family, which includes a snooty mom, a lonely widow, an unpretentious brother, and a mysterious “other woman.”
Despite the high concept, this is not an Agatha Christie-style mystery or a Hitchcockian whodunit. Sarah Ruhl’s play is an examination of the connections and disconnections created by modern technology. Our friends and family may be a button press away, but has that made our relationships stronger or do we actually take less time to see them in the flesh?
In other plays like The Clean House and Eurydice, the imaginative Ruhl proved she could use theatrical conventions to explore language, movement, and human relationships in fresh and interesting ways. Here she incorporates a ubiquitous modern device into a stage drama, merging classic storytelling with current cultural concerns.
“Ruhl understands our growing dependence on the machines we carry in back pockets,” says Keely Enright, who directs the Village Playhouse version of Dead Man’s Cell Phone. “I hadn’t read a play that articulated that and made it such a human story. The way she marries the two elements made it compelling to me. I wanted to see it on stage.”
Enright cast Angela White in the lead. “She doesn’t often have lead roles. She played the mom in A Christmas Story. She’s a character actress who has a fantastic handle on who Jean is. I think Sarah Ruhl would love her interpretation.”
Dave Reinwald plays the dead dude. “There’s a lot to Gordon,” says Enright, adding that he’s “more than just his body.” Samille Basler is his mother Mrs. Gottlieb. “She’s a genius at playing sweet characters, villains, and everything in between. She’s the least likeable character in this show with the most shades of gray.” As the widow, Susan Kattwinkle portrays “probably the loneliest, most damaged character. She gives us a sense of the isolation of being married to Gordon and the aftermath or being freed of him.”
Stacey Rabin is the mysterious other woman. Enright can’t say much about her — she is supposed to be mysterious, after all — other than that she is “enjoying her role.” Josh Wilhoit is Dwight, “a classic younger sibling to a charismatic older sibling, pushed aside, never the star of the family, who is solid, dependable, less glamorous, but rises to many occasions.”
In the past, audiences have been spoiled by the Playhouse’s compact yet extravagant sets, which are full of minutiae. This time Enright is going for something different. “This is much more modular and pared down,” she says. “Jean has to travel to many different locations, halfway across the world at one point. We’ve tried our best to facilitate easy movement. The audience will enjoy seeing how we go from place to place without losing the flow of the play.”
Ruhl creates fables for our age. She adds unexpected or fantastic elements to her plays — dream logic, philosophy, absurdist humor, leaps of imagination. Putting these in a 21st century context allows her to give old themes new relevance and frequently surprise the audience.
“I can’t compare it to anything we’ve done before,” says Enright. “People will come away very pleased; some people will be scratching their heads asking, ‘What the heck?’ ”
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