“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” – Ruhl Rules with Hit Comedy at

TheaterWorks Hartford

By Tony Schillaci and Don Church

You can’t write about the most promising young playwrights in contemporary theater –in any country - without including Pulitzer Prize-finalist Sarah Ruhl.

Lucky theatergoers can experience first-hand what all the justifiable fuss – and laughter - is about by seeing her hit comedy, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” directed by award-winning Rob Ruggiero at Hartford’s TheaterWorks.

As usual with TheaterWorks, the all-important casting of just the right actor for each part resulted in an effective ensemble to play Ruhl’s delightfully flawed characters that we all love and hate in real life.

And, oh, those cell phones. We can’t live with them – sometimes - and we definitely can’t live without them. No one better understands this than playwright Sarah Ruhl; she says it all in “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” and we strongly react to it emotionally throughout this refreshing contemporary comedy.

The play opens with a man seated at a table in a café. A woman is deep in thought at an adjacent table. The man’s cell phone rings and rings and rings. The man doesn’t answer it. The woman gives repeated glances toward the man. This continues, mind you, without dialog;  just perfect stage action that says more than words to grab and hold the audiences’ attention and set the story
in motion.

We love the show already because the woman’s reaction to the situation is very high comedy and made even funnier because she’s playing it straight.

We don’t want to give away anything about the many delightful and sad twists and turns
that drive the plot, but just that one piece to give you an idea that this is no formula sitcom; this is theater at its best.

Well, the irresistible cell phone turns the woman into an obsessive-compulsive who falls
willingly into the clutches of the complicated family and professional life of its owner.

The play gets us to examine how the digital age has changed our lives forever. It might make some yearn for the pre-digital world or to just relax and enjoy this IT age.

Sarah Ruhl, writing for the Los Angeles Times, states, “If someone were to ask me why I wrote this strange play “Dead Man's Cell Phone,” I might be silent, I might be evasive, or I might outright lie. But imagine that I said that I was interested in the culture of cell phones, in how they have completely altered our emotional, psychic and body states to the point where culture (and perhaps not even evolution) has caught up.”

She added that she got the idea for the play “in a New York taxi cab while on the way to see the Dali Lama at Radio City Music Hall.” We don’t care if she is lying or telling the truth, we just love her sense of humor and her way with a play.

Finnerty Steeves plays Jean, the woman who answers the man’s (Gordon’s) cell phone. She is
a brilliant comedic actor of great range who can make you laugh or cry out loud. Sometimes both
at the same time.

She was featured in the Off-Broadway premiere of the popular “Almost, Maine.” She appeared under Rob Ruggiero's direction in “Wonder of the World” at Barrington Stage. Ms. Steeves will be in an upcoming film by Academy-award winning director (“American Beauty”) Sam Mendes.

As Gordon, the cell-phone’s owner, Craig Wroe, is deliciously evil on so many emotional levels. He’s another cast member who is a highly talented and skilled actor who can play a full range of characters from high to low comedy, and drama from the classics to soap-opera melodrama. And mime is another of his gifts. He gives a consistently fine performance you will not soon forget.

Wroe was seen recently in the Off-Broadway premiere of “Catch-22” at the Aquila Theatre, and has been featured in productions at the Roundabout Theatre, Signature Theater and London's Barbican. He admits that “I would love to do more Sarah Ruhl plays…in fact, I would happily do a Sarah Ruhl play in HELL!”

Anne-Lynn Kettles plays Mrs. Gottlieb, the cell man's mother. She never breaks character as the
elegant, perfectly groomed, always-right-in-all-things New York matriarch.

A Hartford-based actor, Ms. Kettles has been seen in a half-dozen productions at Hartford Stage and in “Hot L Baltimore” for the Connecticut Repertory Theatre. She received an Obie Award for her appearance in “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” and has appeared in the Emmy Award-winning broadcast of Hartford Stage's “All Over” on PBS Masterpiece Theater Great Performances.

Mark Shanahan plays the cell man's brother who has many fine comedic moments as such and as the matriarch and sister-in-law’s faithful and obedient door mat. He falls in love with Jean who provides its share of love and lust.

Joey Parsons has the juicy part of the sister-in-law who is a bit slow and also gets to do a drunken scene that’s virtually actor-proof . What more could an actor in a comedy – or an audience - ask for, and she does it so well.

Casting is by Pat McCorkle, C.S.A. The superb design team includes Michael Schweikardt (sets), Katherine Hampton Noland (costumes), John Lasiter (lighting), and J. Hagenbuckle (sound). Production Manager is Michael Lenaghan. They each served the play, director, and actors well with masterful skill and an insightful understanding of Ms. Ruhl’s play. .

Dead Man's Cell Phone plays through March 15, 2009 at TheaterWorks, City Arts on Pearl, 233 Pearl Street in downtown Hartford (wheelchair accessible). Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p. m.; Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p. m.  Tickets: 860-527-7838. Theaterworks.org

TheaterWorks' elegant new main lobby opens 90 minutes prior to curtain time to enjoy works from the New Britain Museum of American Art and the bistro cuisine and wine from bin228 Café and Wine Bar.

© Copyright 2009. Critics On The Aisle. All rights reserved.                                                         

Published in Metroline News Magazine, Early March 2009.

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