How far would you go to right someone else’s wrongs? Someone you’ve never met, at least alive, compels you to connect with their loved ones. Perhaps it feels like the same compulsion you get when you hear the all too familiar tone of an phone going off in your pocket, and you just have to look. At least, this is what Jean must decide when she encounters a dead Gordon in a nondescript cafe and his self phone won’t stop ringing. Suddenly, a shy and awkward vegetarian is the starring heroine in an organ traffickers’ redemption arc. Compulsion frenetically builds almost to obsession for Jean as she is engulfed in Gordon’s mysterious life—successfully tempting her to negotiate and soothe the grief of his family; soften the anger at his misdoings; and (unsuccessfully) quell the danger of his business dealings.
Bizarre, dizzying, witty, tender, and spiritual…all the layered questions of morality, love, death, afterlife, and wavelengths have been carefully peeled back and exposed in off-kilter reality.
This is Sarah Ruhl’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” a searingly hilarious allegory for the paradoxical nature of modern technology. Bizarre, dizzying, witty, tender, and spiritual, the play was awarded a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play when it premiered at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. in 2007. Now playing at Fells Point Corner Theatre, all the layered questions of morality, love, death, afterlife, and wavelengths have been carefully peeled back and exposed in off-kilter reality.
In her note, Director Kimberley Lynne’s offers this insight in Rhul’s complex narrative: “Death is a door, and Ruhl helps us consider our temporality and our capacity for kindness with a giggle and a wink…Part love story, part technological commentary, part metaphysical treatise and part stand up, Ruhl’s story leaps forward as she seamlessly blends theories of a spiritual pipeline with an addiction to rib eye steak and the clamor of cell phones.” These interpretations read clearly throughout the conceptual framework in which Lynne places the work. There was discussion during the rehearsal process of whether the play inhabits a dream or alternate reality, and this is reflected is the flawless simple execution of the setting. Scenic design by Brad Norris utilizes dozens of strips of tulle suspended from the ceiling and mottled white and grey tones to evoke the paper-thin edge of the veil between worlds of living and dead that Jean must balance. It was the perfect duet to Bernard B. Johnson’s lighting design. Johnson’s moody and rich tones physically manifested the thesis of the play. The air remembers our connections and messages, captured in the wavelengths of technology reflected to the audience through dappled color. The mesmerizing dance of light amongst the translucent fabric, along with the effective use of gobos, transported us to the various locations: a cafe, a church, a darkened stationary store, and the Other Side.
A whimsical interpretation of one of Jean’s lines about wanting to live in a house built of her favorite paper propelled the evolution of the concept as tiny, intricate, internally-lit paper houses built by paper artist Bryonna Sieck. They descended from the ceiling, came to life behind the veils, and floated amongst the fabric tendrils. Costume Designer Karen Saar brought a modern approach to the garments without sacrificing specificity for each character’s personality and social standing.
The stage at FPCT is a tricky wedge shape, but was handled with great skill by the directing team. All corners of the space were used effectively by Lynne. Her staging was well supported with tender intimacy direction by Laura Hackman and robust, naturalistic fight choreography by Larry Malkus. Obvious attention had been payed to the scene transitions, actors still holding characters whilst placing chairs, accompanied by earnest and delicate melodies composed by Chris Hart and Mark Winemiller.
Interestingly, even though the play is about how everyone is on their phones constantly, there was only one phone throughout the piece—the dead man’s. An ancient relic at this point, Gordon’s flip phone reacted dissonantly with sound design by Todd Mion, who utilized the modern iPhone ringtone that is ubiquitous in our smart phone world. This choice made for effective storytelling. Creating a reactionary moment as an audience member, even though I knew it was off, I kept feeling like it was my own phone interrupting the action, continually reinforcing the allegorical elements of the play.
Ruhl’s style in this piece is almost existential poetry, creating a unique way of intermingling realistic dialogue with competing metaphorical ideas. The whirlwind of characters emotionally shift so regularly and rapidly—every couple of lines there’s a topic change. At times, this led to the intentions of the characters shifting in an out of focus.
This immense challenge was grappled with by the talented ensemble. Laura Malkus, as protagonist Jean, was simultaneously a fragile vessel, yet strong-willed and stubborn, an eager soul searching for purpose and meaning. This contrasted heavily with Morgan Stanton as Gordon Gottleib who was bitter, intractable, narcissistic and, unfortunately, charming. Marianne Gazolla Angelella commanded attention as the matriarch Harriet Gottleib, her piercing and brutal way of loving her children presented itself through pithy remarks and stern looks (especially to the audience for “interrupting” her eulogy). Malkus was complimented by sweet, loving, and beleaguered J. Purnell Hargrove as Dwight, paramour and brother to Gordon. Penelope Chan artfully pulled off a double-barrel role as Carlotta/The Stranger with humor, mystique, and elegance. Last but most certainly not least was Kay Megan Washington as Hermia, Gordon’s grieving and headstrong widow. Her drunken confession to Jean in Act Two was a definite highlight for me that evening.
The story that unfolded in “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” was assuredly approached with great attention to detail. Raw emotion gave way to pinpoint comedic timing, which gave way to curious engagement, which gave way to delicious intrigue and rich design—all the necessary ingredients for a compelling investigation into the moral quandaries of the technological age. I am left with questions as well as answers. Any show that makes me think, is a show worth seeing.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission.
“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” runs Friday, Saturday, and Sundays through March 12, 2023 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S Ann Street, Baltimore, MD 21231. Tickets and more information can be found online. Covid Protocols: Masking is required while inside the theatre when not actively eating or drinking.