If there’s nothing more annoying than the sudden sound of a cell phone going off in a public place, how about when the owner of said phone just lets it ring … and ring … and ring? No wonder Jean, the heroine of Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, finally loses her patience and goes over to give the negligent phone owner a piece of her mind. It’s only then that she discovers that the man with the annoying cell phone has, as they say, met his maker.

Thus begins Ruhl’s whimsical Helen Hays Award-nominated comedy, a sure bet to entertain audiences at Long Beach’s International City Theatre, particularly with director Richard Israel imaginatively in charge.

Dead-Man's-Cell-Phone_5 It doesn’t take us long to realize that Holocaust Museum employee Jean (Alina Phelan) 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 the dead man, and promises to stay with him “as long as you need me.”

Jean soon decides that the dead man’s cell phone has been entrusted to her for a purpose—to help the man’s loved ones and to help keep his memory alive—and though she and the dearly departed had only just met (after a fashion), Jean has come to a startling conclusion. “I believe I loved him.”

Dead-Man's-Cell-Phone_2 Before long, Jean finds herself meeting the people in Gordon Gottlieb’s life, beginning with Carlotta (Heather Roberts), his elegant, sophisticated mistress, who, having instructed Jean in the art of applying one’s lipstick in public, can’t resist asking about Gordon’s last words. Jean then utters the first in a series of lies she will be telling in order 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 (Eileen T’Kaye), Jean also meets his tightly wound, severely introverted widow Hermia (Susan Diol) and his milquetoast of a brother Dwight (Trent Dawson).

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. Jean then goes on to distribute gifts she claims that Gordon had picked out that day in the café. There’s 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!

Dead-Man's-Cell-Phone_6   It turns out, unfortunately, that Gordon’s mother is the world’s worst cook. In fact, the only thing Carlotta seems to have any sort of knack for cooking is meat, which is why all that’s on the dining table is meat, lots and lots of meat, a single platter stacked high with it. When Jean confesses that “I’m sort of a vegetarian,” a profusely apologetic Dwight offers to take her shopping for broccoli and cauliflower followed by a visit to his his stationery store.

And then, since this is the world of according to Sarah Ruhl, the sad strangers bond … over paper, no less, and Jean realizes that it’s perhaps not merely a family she has found, she may just have discovered love as well.

Ruhl’s writing is as uniquely original as the characters she has created, with an unconventional sense of humor that can prove 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.” 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.”

With characters as quirky as those Ruhl creates in this and in other plays like The Clean House and Eurydice, not only must a director understand the playwright’s unique voice but cast actors who can make us believe that Ruhl’s odd bunch of dramatis personae are human beings every bit as real as you or I.

Fortunately, Israel is just such a director, and his ICT cast are just such actors beginning with the remarkable Phelan as a perfectly marvelous Jean.

Dead-Man's-Cell-Phone_3 I’ve been an Alina Phelan fan since her days with the late, much lamented troupe of improv geniuses who called themselves Those Meddling Kids and later as a company member of Theatre Of NOTE, most recently in the Scenie-winning ensemble of Hearts Like Fists. The role of Jean fits Phelan like a glove, the actress’s instant-likeability factor and absolute authenticity not only insuring that we are firmly on her side from that first unanswered cell phone ring but making us believe in the profound effect she has on Gordon’s mother, widow, and brother.

Supporting performances are uniformly splendid, from T’Kaye’s acerbic Mrs. Gottlieb to Diol’s repressed Hermia to Roberts’ pair of mysterious glamour girls.

And speaking of dual roles, longtime soap heartthrob (and three-time Emmy nominee) Dawson not only plays the shy, inhibited Dwight to perfection but his supremely self-assured brother Gordon as well, so distinctly crafting these two characters that several theatergoers were overheard wondering at curtain calls where Gordon was, since only Dwight was there to take bows.

Scenic designer D Martyn Brookwalter has created a stylish multi-location set that looks terrific on the ICT thrust stage, especially as lit with accustomed flair by six-time Scenie-winning Lighting Designer Of The Year Jeremy Pivnick. Resident costume designer Kim DeShazo provides each character with his or her signature look, from Jean’s drab yet attractive sweater, dress, and leggings to Dwight’s nerdy cardigan vest to Carlotta’s clingy, low-cut red gown. Resident sound designer Dave Mickey gives Dead Man’s Cell Phone a jazzy musical underscoring and plenty of cell phone ring tones. Resident properties designers Patty and Gordon Briles have assembled elegant china, cocktail glasses, a pile of rib-eye steaks, and (what else?) cell phones. Resident hair and wig designer Anthony Gagliardi coifs each character to perfection. Finally, fight choreographer extraordinaire Andrew Amani has designed a knock-down drag-out confrontation between Jean and a character known only as The Stranger that is one of his best—and funniest.

Michael Frank is production stage manager and Jeremy Lewis assistant stage manager. Casting is by resident casting director Michael Donovan, CSA, assisted by Richie Ferris. Dead Man’s Cell Phone is produced by caryn desai.

With Israel, Phelan, Dawson, and their castmates making theatrical magic of Ruhl’s world and words, Dead Man’s Cell Phone is sure to engage you with its charm and surprise you with its imaginative twists.  International City Theatre’s latest offering is L.A. theater at its best.

International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
June 9, 2013
Photos: Suzanne Mapes

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