Dead Man's Cell Phone

By Geary Danihy

The old adage used to be, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” but in the age of cell phones, at least as chronicled and pilloried in Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Sarah Ruhl’s engaging yet ultimately superficial comedy that recently opened at Hartford TheaterWorks, the new wisdom is: “It’s not what you know, it’s who calls you.”


Dinner with the family of the Dead Man. (l to r) Mark Shanahan, Lee Heinz, Finnerty Steeves and Anne-Lynn Kettles. Photo by Lanny Nagler.

It also used to be that the memory of those who have passed on was kept alive in the hearts and minds of the bereaved, but as Ruhl would have it, your continued presence in this vale of tears is assured not by fond memories but by the calls your cell phone receives after your demise. Such is the premise that finds Jean (Finnerty Steeves) sitting in a café becoming increasingly irritated by the incessant ringing of another patron’s cell phone. Since he does not respond to her pleas that he do something (How could anyone resist the electronic siren’s call?), she strides to his table, picks up his phone and answers. She takes a message and then discovers that the only reason Gordon (Craig Wroe) didn’t take the call is that he is dead.

What follows is an increasingly unbelievable series of serendipitous misapprehensions – think Sorry, Wrong Number meets While You Were Sleeping – that provide Ruhl the opportunity to comment on the loss of privacy and the value of silence, the difference between conversation and communication, what awaits us after death, and the evils inherent in the selling of body parts. Along the way, there’s a lot of topical, humorous dialogue and set-piece scenes, one of the best being the wake for Gordon at which his mother, Mrs. Gottlieb (Anne-Lynn Kettles) attempts to honor her son with a reading from Dickens but is constantly interrupted by the ringing of the mourners’ cell phones. She ends the services by pointedly singing, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

With the exception of Jean, the characters border on the stereotypical: you have the domineering mother; Gordon, the favorite son; Dwight (Mark Shanahan), Gordon’s emasculated younger brother; Hermia (Lee Heinz), the dead man’s frigid, frustrated wife; and Gordon’s femme fatale mistress, played by Joey Parsons. What holds this familiar pastiche of characters together and makes the whole thing work for as long as it does is Steeve’s delightfully deadpan portrayal of a woman who, swept up into a world of family and business secrets, attempts to make everything right by continuously fabricating Gordon’s last words and actions to set his relatives’ hearts and minds at ease.

Bearing more than a passing resemblance to the silent film comedian Harold Lloyd and blessed with dead-on comic timing, Steeve, under the quite able direction of Rob Ruggiero, TheaterWorks senior artistic associate, is able to turn moments that might merely have merited a smile into ones that engender hearty laughter, and her slow double-takes as she tries to work out what is happening are things of comedic beauty.

The supporting cast also create moments that engage the funny bone, chief among them Kettles in the aforementioned wake scene as well as her hosting of a family dinner party, and Heinz, inebriated, describing her character’s sexual fantasies to a nonplussed Steeve. The problem is that this slightly screwball comedy turns somewhat metaphysical late in the second act, with Jean, after deciding to travel to South Africa – a decisions that stretches credulity to the breaking point – has an out-of-body experience that allows Ruhl to dwell on the nature of heaven and hell. Jean’s return to her corporeal self leads to a tying-up of loose ends that is less than satisfying.

The play’s final moments aside, there are enough laughs in the evening to warrant a trip up to Hartford. Those who have been to TheaterWorks in the past will also be pleased by what the company, in conjunction with the New Britain Museum of American Art, has done with the building at 233 Pearl St. There’s new exterior and interior signage, a new entrance and a main lobby that features long-term installations from the NBMAA collection (the current one is an eye-catching exhibition of “Pulp Art”), a bistro catered by bin228 Wine Bar and Bistro, and a Back Room for exhibits of the work of the museum’s staff and affiliated artists, all of which enhances the theater-going experience.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone runs through Sunday, march 15. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org.

This review originally appeared in The Norwalk Citizen-News.

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