Dead Man’s Cell Phone
Submitted by Adam Rafferty on Wednesday, 7th Jul 2010
Date of Show:Thursday, 1st July 2010 (All day)
A constantly ringing and unanswered mobile phone in a theatre can often elicit homicidal tendencies from an audience, so it is a wicked trick by writer Sarah Ruhl that Dead Man’s Cell Phone starts its story with just such a sonic attack. When the sweetly quirky Jean (Lisa McCune) finally answers the titular object out of sheer frustration with its owner’s ignorance of the din, she discovers that he has departed the land of the living and suddenly takes it upon herself to ensure his remembrance is a positive one. She does this by inventing stories for the dead man’s callers that will make them all feel that he died with a caring thought for them.
This endearing sense of responsibility and romantic fantasy powers Jean as she comforts the family of Gordon Gottlieb (John Adam), the man whose life was far less simple than Jean imagines it was in his death. The tangled web of Gordon’s living life quickly ties itself around Jean as she finds herself lying to save face and committing to roles she never expected to be undertaking: counsellor to Gordon’s wife, confidante to his mistress, antagonist to his mother and lover to his brother Dwight.
McCune finds a new, yet familiar character in Jean and is amply sweet as she is peculiar in her attempts to posthumously right the wrongs of Gordon’s life. Eccentric characters are par for the course in this story though, and along with McCune’s charming portrayal, Sue Jones as Gordon’s mother illustrates especially well a uniquely abrasive hospitality. Further, Sarah Sutherland in a welcome MTC debut deftly delivers the humour of Gordon’s wife Hermia’s drunken insecurities.
Director Peter Evans describes Ruhl’s story as being one of “magical realism” – which is a way to explain a tale that seems to be based in a reality we understand, yet is stretched at the corners into the realms of fantasy. The only problem is that neither Ruhl nor Evans seems to know exactly which fantastic direction they want to pull the story towards, with elements of fairy tale, abstract surrealism and noir-style detective fiction all appearing at one point or another. Dead Man’s Cell Phone often finds itself hitting an exciting stride before stumbling back into a lolloping gait. The first act sets up the brilliant premise well and Evan’s direction does have some genuinely magical moments. Stationery elegantly floating to the ground around Jean and Dwight as they fall in love, and Hermia’s ice-skating across the stage are two sublime examples of delightful staging, but the production is weighed down by agonisingly long set changes and a stage that is far too big for its subject matter and set design.
Claude Marcos’ set is perhaps restrained due to the budgetary splurges of other recent MTC productions and the fact that this play was clearly written for smaller venues, but the static launderette setting is largely uninspired and doesn’t sustain interest over the duration. On the upside Alexis George’s costume designs are appropriately oddball and add delicious flavour to each of the characters.
John Adam delivers a wonderful soliloquy at the beginning of Act Two that helps to inject vigour into the second half of the play and McCune’s wonderfully wacky fight scene with Emma Jackson as the mysterious purchaser of Gordon’s illicit wares goes some way towards forgiving Jackson for her woeful South American accent as the mistress in the first act. Daniel Frederiksen as Dwight is, as usual, consistently good and brings lovely warmth to his role – although warmth is definitely required for his first, costume-free appearance on stage!
While Dead Man’s Cell Phone is overall a rather patchy piece that misses as frequently as it hits, those hits are often delectably heart-warming and create a weirdly wondrous night in theatre.