A woman sits alone at a table in a nearly empty café.  Several yards away, at another table, a man’s cell phone rings. And rings. And rings. What else is the woman to do but go over to the man to see why he’s ignoring his phone. “Are you deaf?” she asks, then realizes the stupidity of her question.  Nothing to do but answer the phone herself and take a message. Then it hits her why the man isn’t responding.  She picks up a spoon from his table and holds it up to the man’s nose.  Nothing.  His cell phone still in her hand, she dials 911 and calmly informs the operator, “I think there’s a dead man sitting next to me.”

Thus begins Sarah Ruhl’s charming, witty, and delightfully original comedy Dead Man’s Cell Phone, now getting its Southern California premiere at South Coast Rep under the direction of Bart DeLorenzo.

The woman, we soon learn, is named Jean, and she is a woman without a life, answering the cell phone of a man who has just lost his. “How did you die so quietly?” she asks him.  “I’ll stay with you,” she adds reassuringly.  “As long as you need me.”

The cell phone, it seems to Jean, has been entrusted to her for a purpose. “Help me to help his loved ones,” she prays. “Help me to help his memory live on. I only knew him for a short while.  I believe I loved him.”

Before long, Jean (Margaret Welsh) is meeting the people in Gordon Gottlieb’s life, beginning with Carlotta, his elegant French-accented mistress (Nike Doukas), who instructs Jean in the art of applying one’s lipstick in public.  “Gordon didn’t tell you much,” says Carlotta, hitting the nail quite squarely on the head, but perhaps, at least, Gordon may have said something before he died?  “What were his last words?” she asks, and Jean tells the first in a series of lies intended to ease the pain of the people Gordon left behind:  “He said, ‘Tell her that I love her,’ and then he turned his face away, and he died.”

Invited for dinner at the home of Gordon’s wealthy society matron of a mother (Christina Pickles), Jean also meets his tightly wound and severely introverted widow Hermia (Shannon Holt) and his milquetoast of a brother Dwight (Andrew Borba).

When Jean learns that Gordon had stopped answering his mother’s calls after a fight they had quite some time back, she tells another lie, that Gordon had tried to call her the day he died, and his mother’s face lights up with joy. “You’re very comforting,” Mrs. Gottlieb tells her.  “You’re like a very small casserole.”

Jean has brought along presents for each of Gordon’s family members, gifts she claims that he picked out that day in the café—a salt shaker for Hermia, because she is “the salt of the earth,” a cup for Dwight because, Jean improvises, he is like a cup which can “hold beautiful things and they don’t pour out,” and a spoon for Mrs. Gottlieb for … for her cooking!

Speaking of Mother’s cooking, the only thing she seems to have a knack for is meat, and all that is on the dining table is meat, lots and lots of meat, three platters full of it. When Jean confesses that “I’m sort of a vegetarian,” a profusely apologetic Dwight offers to take her shopping for broccoli and cauliflower, and to show her his stationery store. The two bond … over paper, and perhaps, Jean realizes, she’s not only found a family, she may just have found love.

Then come the myriad surprises of Act 2, none of which will be revealed here, except to say that the role of Gordon is played by Lenny Von Dohlen, and his is not a small part in the least. 

Ruhl’s writing is uniquely original, as are the characters she creates.  At one point Jean tells Dwight that she never wanted a cell phone.  “Sometimes,” she confesses, “I just want to disappear,” and, she explains, a person with a cell phone has to “be there, all the time.” But when Jean took possession of Gordon’s cell phone and it started ringing, she felt that the ringing of the phone was keeping him alive. Ruhl also has a quirky sense of humor that proves irresistible.  Mrs. Gottlieb tells her daughter-in-law, “I could never get used to Gordon having a wife, but now that he’s dead, I think you’re going to be a great comfort to me.”  And later Jean learns from Gordon’s brother that his mother named him Dwight, not in honor of the President, but because “she felt sorry for the name.”

The masterful De Lorenzo has just the right touch to insure that his actors do not overpower the delicacy of Ruhl’s writing, and what a marvelous group of actors he has cast. Like Laura Linney, whom she resembles, Welsh can go from plain to beautiful in a glance, and her Jean is a flower which begins as a bud and blooms into a magical and courageous woman.  Pickles is never anything less than divine, and no one plays society matrons (or quirky mothers) better than she. Borba has the gift of disappearing into whatever role he plays, and what a joy it is to see the shy, inhibited Dwight shed his inhibitions and become the man his overbearing older brother never allowed him to be. Holt, as always, has an electricity that makes whatever role she plays twice as much as it was on the printed page, and her Hermia is a joy to behold, never more so than in a hilarious drunk scene opposite Welsh, and later on in a brief cameo as a “dramatic ice skater.” The always watchable Doukas makes the most of two her two appearances, first as Gordon’s glamorous mistress, and later as a mysterious stranger.  Finally, Von Dohlen does excellent work as Gordon, but to say any more about his performance would give too much away about the character’s role in the second half of the play.

As always, much of the enjoyment of attending a South Coast Rep production is seeing just what their amazing designers have come up with, and Dead Man’s Cell Phone is no exception.  Keith E. Mitchell’s marvelously mobile and fanciful set design slides furniture and backdrops on and off stage to effortlessly move the action from one locale to another, backed by John Zalewski’s mood-setting musical sound design, which also includes (appropriately) numerous ringing phones with a variety of tones.  Lap-Chi Chu’s lighting is, as always, splendid, as are Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes, particularly Pickles’ high society gowns and fur wrap.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a play which engages you with its charm and surprises you with its imaginative twists. Ruhl’s writing and DeLorenzo’s direction enable the actors to shine extra brightly, and make the audience look forward to more in the future from all concerned.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
–Steven Stanley
September 28, 2008
Photos: Ed Krieger

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