Last Sunday afternoon I drove north of Indianapolis to the Carmel Community Playhouse to see the Carmel Community Players’ production of “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” by Sarah Ruhl. Kari Ann Stamatoplos directed it for CCP, with Michael T. Long as the producer.
This is a bizarre but charming show by the same person who wrote “In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play” which I saw at the Phoenix Theatre a couple of weekends ago. I wish I had been able to catch the Butler University production of the playwright’s “Eurydice” this month as well. Sarah Ruhl is now one of my favorite playwrights.
What “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” Is About
A naïve woman named Jean is annoyed at first because the man sitting near her at a café refuses to answer his loudly ringing cell phone. However, when she goes over to berate him, she discovers that he has passed away. “How did you die so quietly?” she wonders aloud but, of course, he does not answer.
She calls 911 but also continues to answer his cell phone on his behalf. She gets caught up in her romantic imagination of this stranger’s personality and compassionately lies her way into relationships with his wealthy, dysfunctional family, his sexy, vain mistress, and his shady business associates. One of these people tells her she is “comforting, like a very small casserole.” She gets in deeper and deeper, however, until her lies begin to catch up with her.
“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is a satire about, among other things, the importance of answering the calls in your life, even if, especially if, you can’t control or predict the consequences, and the importance of knowing when to let go.
Susie Mohr is brilliant as the mousy and easily-overlooked but basically kind and imaginative Jean. From the very first moment of the show Susie sets the right delicate balance in tone for the audience: we’re not at the theatre to make fun of the dead or those who grieve them, but we’re also not there to get all weepy, either. There is definitely a lot to laugh at, and laugh at without guilt, in this show, but there is a lot of good stuff to think about, too.
I think this balance is also due to Kari Ann Stamatoplos’ skilled direction. Under her leadership, the other actors are also just right: Diann Ryan is guffaw-worthy as the Dead Man’s wacko mother; Ericka Barker is a layered and sympathetic hoot as Hermia Gottlieb, the Dead Man’s “cold” wife; Catherine Nading is made-me-squirm sexy as the Dead Man’s voluptuous mistress (I will never put on lipstick in public again without thinking of her!); and John Murray as Dwight, the Dead Man’s under-loved, stuck-in-the-shadow brother is as comfortably two-dimensional as the stationery that he and Jean bond over (but with the 3-dimensional potential of a pop-up card, which Jean also sees in him.)
And Gregory Howard as Gordon Gottlieb, aka the Dead Man, is…satisfyingly complex and believable, even though he is dead. I think that is all I will say about him so that I don’t spoil anything for you.
There are four other performers in the show: the “Stage Struck Stagehands.” They dance around for laughs in the dim lights between scenes, changing the furniture or placing props in time to the scene change music. I don’t remember these characters from the Wooly Mammoth Theatre’s production that I saw a few years ago (pre-blog.) I’m not sure how I feel about their antics as an artistic choice in CCP’s production, especially if they weren’t part of the original script. In general, I guess I just prefer scene changes to be fast, dark, and unremarkable so as not to pull me out of the main story of the play or slow it down.
However, I can also understand if this choice was made to enhance the script’s whimsical, hallucinatory qualities. In any case, the four people who play the Stage Struck Stagehands do a kick-butt job of the roles they’ve been asked to play. Suzie Caterino and Matthew Raborn, especially, are fun to watch, but Kara Coleman and Andrea Wolfram are also high-energy set changers. They all wear yellow t-shirts with cell phones on them, which is fun, too. (Costumes by Susan Sanderock.)
Don Drennen’s sound and light design is very cool – subtly clever throughout and truly killer (pardon the expression) in one particular scene. The next time someone says that community theatre can’t be technically exciting without a big budget, big facility, and/or professionally paid designers, I will think of this show’s lighting design.
The set, designed by the director and the producer and constructed by the producer and Josh Meyer, is “bare bones” in some ways, yet always wonderfully evocative. I loved Suzie Caterino’s meat props at the family dinner. Ed Trout’s paintings on the café wall and in the family dining room made me think of Edward Hopper’s work, which, according to my program, is what they were supposed to do.
Audience and Appeal Factors
The main appeal for me was that I had seen and enjoyed “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” during the run of its world premiere at the Wooley Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC in 2007, before it went to Broadway and before I started blogging about theatre. I was delighted when CCP announced that this show would be part of its 2010-2011 season because I was eager to see if it was as good as I remembered it (it was!) and what another production would be like.
I also, as I mentioned earlier, now have Sarah Ruhl on my “see this playwright’s work whenever you can” list. I love her mastery of the English language and her unique view of the world.
The appeal for other people, I think, as well as for myself, is that “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is a quirky and sensitive, language-rich comedy about life, after-life, and communication. These are three of my favorite things to think about. Perhaps they are yours, too?
Another appeal factor is the show’s appropriateness for live theatre. As Indianapolis playwright Matthew Roland said in the thread about this production on IndianaAuditions.com: “This is a very, very good show with a scene, second act, that epitomizes what theater does differently from everything else, in a beautiful way.”
It is also not a show for people who are offended by funny suppositions about what happens after we die.
I wish I had time to see it again!
“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” runs through this Sunday afternoon, October 24, 2010 at the Carmel Community Playhouse in Clay Terrace shopping center. Visit www.carmelplayers.org or call 317-815-9387 to make reservations.
‘See you at the theatres!
(Photo above is of Gregory Howard and Susie Mohr, used with permission from CCP’s Christopher Barnthouse.)