Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Sarah Ruhl’s farce that explores the themes of mortality and how technology can paradoxically unite and isolate us in the digital age, premiered on the Chapel Street Players stage Friday evening. Directed by Tanya Lazar with the acting talents of Lindsay Brahl, Ray Barto, Marlene Hummel, Cindy Starcher, Sean Kelly, Tricia Sullivan, Meg Barton, and Nicole Pierce, the play won a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play when it premiered at the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington D. C. on June 4, 2007.
DMCP is an absurdist comedy in two acts with scenes of various lengths. Absurdist (or surreal) humor is predicated on violations of causal reasoning, resulting in events and behaviors that are illogical and tends to involve bizarre juxtapositions, non-sequiturs, irrational or absurd situations, as well as expressions of nonsense. Humor is derived from the unpredictability and ridiculousness of the situations. This certainly describes this play to a tee.
Warning: There are spoilers on the line….
A naïve, unmarried, 40-ish woman, Jean (Brahl), sits in a nearly empty café, attempting to enjoy her lobster bisque when the cell phone of a man occupying the neighboring table begins to ring incessantly. Jean is annoyed by the repeated ringing and asks the man if he’s going to answer his phone. Exasperated by the man’s unresponsiveness, Jean finally takes it upon herself to answer the man’s phone for him because “after all, a ringing phone demands to be answered.” She discovers why the man hasn’t answered his phone. He’s been disconnected… permanently. That is to say, he’s dead (as the title of the play suggests).
Jean does what any of us would do, she calls 911 and stays with the man, whom she learns was named Gordon (Barto), until the ambulance arrives. But then Jean does what most of us wouldn’t do, she continues to answer Gordon’s cell phone, taking messages from Gordon’s business associates, friends, family…even his mistress, inventing well-intentioned lies and becoming more deeply entangled in her own confabulations in her misguided effort to keep Gordon alive and comfort those he left behind.
Jean inexplicably attends Gordon’s funeral where Gordon’s grief-stricken mother, Mrs. Gottlieb (Hummel), delivers an impassioned (if not expletive laced) eulogy. While at the funeral, Jean takes a call from Gordon’s mistress (Sullivan) and agrees to meet with her. When the two women meet, the mistress asks what Gordon’s last words were. Jean lies to comfort the woman and states that Gordon declared his love for her with his dying breath. This, of course, is a lie.
Gordon’s cell phone rings again. It’s Mrs. Gottlieb inviting Jean to come for a chat. Jean accepts and meets with Mrs. Gottlieb, purporting to be one of Gordon’s co-workers. This is a bit alarming for reasons that will become clear later. Mrs. Gottlieb is distraught over losing her son. Jean doubles down on her fabrications, telling Mrs. Gottlieb that Gordon had attempted to call her on the day he died. The truth is, Gordon and his mother had had a falling out and he refused to take her calls, but the lie is enough to earn Jean an invitation to dinner where she meets Hermia, Gordon’s shockingly frank, sometimes inebriated, widow (Starcher), and Dwight (Kelly), Gordon’s younger, nerdy, overlooked, hiccup curing, brother.
Jean presents them all gifts from the café at dinner, stating that they are from Gordon, taking pleasure in her newfound skill of lying to console Gordon’s loved ones. Dwight and Jean bond over caramel popcorn and a shared love of…stationary (Dwight works at a stationary store).
Gordon opens Act Two, reaching out from the grave to explain that all he wanted the day he died was some lobster bisque. That’s why he was in the café, but Jean got the last lobster bisque. Gordon had to settle for lentil. He died watching Jean eat his intended meal.
The play takes its most bizarre turn in the second act. Dwight and Jean fall in love in the stationary store and devise the letter “Z” as their code word should one of them get into trouble. Dwight wants Jean to abandon Gordon’s cell phone, but Jean refuses. She confesses that she never had a cell phone before. Dwight is frustrated. When the phone rings again, Jean is off to meet a drunken Hermia in a bar. Hermia lets slip what Gordon did for a living.
The more we learn about Gordon, the more we realize he was not a nice person. He was a horrible person who seemed to love himself far more than anyone else in his life. Jean is horrified to learn the truth about Gordon—that he is a broker in the black market sale of human organs— even as she imaginatively tries to reinvent Gordo. The phone rings a final time. It is a woman telling Jean that there’s a kidney available for sale in South Africa. The stranger says she will meet Jean at the Johannesburg airport.
At this point, a normal person would step off the merry-go-round, but Jean is determined to atone for Gordon’s sins by sacrificing herself. At the airport, Jean is confronted by Gordon’s mistress now disguised as a mysterious femme fatale. The stranger attacks Jean and, in yet another bizarre twist, Jean once again finds herself in a café with Gordon, but this time he can speak and tells Jean that she is in his pipeline because when you die, you go directly to the person you loved most. Jean tells Gordon she loved him because she didn’t know him. Now that she does, she is horrified to be stuck with him for all eternity. Jean tells Gordon that his mother loved him most. Gordon vanishes into his mother’s pipeline. In desperation, Jean screams “Z” and wakes in the Johannesburg airport to find Dwight waiting for her.
At Mrs. Gottlieb’s house, Jean learns that Gordon’s mistress has commandeered the cell phone and taken over Gordon’s business. Jean tells Mrs. Gottlieb that she’s been with Gordon in Heaven and that he’s waiting in her pipeline for her. Like a moth to a flame, Mrs. Gottlieb is reunited with Gordon. Dwight and Jean pledge to love each other always so that they can remain in one another’s pipeline. They kiss “and the lights go out.”
Brahl is a wonderfully expressive actress and maintains the character’s curiosity and anxiety throughout the play with great energy. Although Barto’s time on the stage is limited, he delivers a solid performance as Gordon in a monologue delivered from beyond the grave and, later, in another scene from the afterlife. It’s a treat to see Hummel on the CSP stage again. She always delivers an entertaining performance. Although Sullivan’s time on stage is also brief, she is deliciously vampy as the mistress (and, later, mysterious and dangerous as The Stranger). Kelly’s performance as Dwight is perfectly charming. Kelly and Brahl have great chemistry on stage.
Tanya Lazar’s direction and staging were superb. Ray Barto’s utilitarian set design works very well for this production. Brian Touchette’s lighting design and Peter Kuo’s video imagery design compliment the show.
If absurd comedies are your thing, then Dead Man’s Cell Phone will definitely not be a wrong number. There are great, funny moments and ridiculous situations that will make you chuckle at the very least. Parents of young children should, however, be advised that the play has adult themes and language.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone runs through November 17th. Call the box office at (302) 368-2248 or visit http://www.chapelstreetplayers.org to reserve your tickets today.