March 21, 2009, by Joe Nickell, Missoulian
In just the second scene of Sarah Ruhl’s quirky comedy, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” a young woman named Jean professes her love for Gordon, a man she has never met and will never meet – not on this plane of existence, anyway. Gordon, it seems, has died – a victim of the lentil soup. Jean, by happenstance, has taken possession of his cell phone, and in so doing has taken it upon herself to settle his affairs, one ill-timed ring at a time.
“Help me, God,” Jean pleads on her knees. “Help me to comfort his loved ones.”
Thus begins a pseudo-mystical, cross-continental and, yes, even multi-planar journey made only marginally plausible by the magical powers of cellular telephony. Along the way, there are guns and girl fights, an icy queen mother and an exotic mystery woman, ice follies in Denmark and an elegant dance between umbrellas and cell phones.
In its romantic implausibility and symbolic fantasy, the play resembles nothing so much as Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” in which a young man endures endless elemental trials in pursuit of a woman he believes he loves after having only seeing her picture.
This isn’t exactly Mozart, but it isn’t Neil Simon, either. The jokes don’t come easy, and the laughs sometimes come with squirms. For every absurd comic moment, there is an equally poignant observation on the cultural and interpersonal transformations of the cell phone age.
“I never had a cell phone,” Jean muses. “I didn’t want to be there, you know. Like if your phone is on you’re supposed to be there. Sometimes I like to disappear. But it’s like – when everyone has their cell phones on, no one is there. It’s like we’re all disappearing the more we’re there.
Alas, sprinkled between those moments are more than a few self-important observations that push the metaphorical meaning of the cell phone too far.
“I’m hearing fragments of lost love and hepatitis,” Gordon recalls of his days among the living, riding the subway, listening in on other people’s phone conversations, “and I’m thinking, is there no privacy?”
Deep or not, it’s a funny line when spat out by Seth Bloom, the actor who gives life to the dead man of the title in the current production at the Crystal Theatre. Despite his presumed-dead status, Gordon nonetheless scores the longest soliloquy of the two-act play. Bloom, swaggering and blustery in his too-large suit and slicked-back hair, manages to pull pathos into the moment – no small feat, given what we come to know about Gordon’s sins.
If Gordon ultimately proves detestable, maybe that just helps push Jean along on her path of self-discovery.
“I liked you better when you couldn’t talk,” Jean finally declares.
Verbal silence is the currency of this Jean. As portrayed by Teralyn Tanner, Jean’s searching heart reaches out through her eyes, in long moments of expressive facial drama that stand among the production’s finest achievements. When she finally gets Gordon to shut up, her ensuing wordless narrative proves far more profound and moving.
Ultimately, Jean finds her love in Gordon’s brother, Dwight, a geeky stiff whose romantic charms consist of (a) a job at a stationery store (symbolism alert!) and (b) an active pulse. Played by Grant Olson, Dwight is neither Cassanova nor Cyrano, but he’s certainly loveable enough to get this girl.
Surrounding this odd love triangle is a fine supporting cast highlighted by the remarkable Ann Wright as Mrs. Gottlieb, Gordon’s frosty mother whose hard-set jaw only partly masks her quivering sense of betrayal and resentment. Hers is a gripping performance that anchors the script’s absurd plot and comic banter in deep emotional waters.
While “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” may soon seem dated in its of-the-moment observations on technology, its true currency derives from the eternal struggle to bridge connections in a fractured world. We all want to reach out and touch someone. This production by Montana Actors’ Theatre wisely dials into the human core of Ruhl’s script, and that’s a good call.
Montana Actors’ Theatre presents “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” on Saturday, March 21, and Sunday, March 22, and March 25-28 at the Crystal Theatre, 515 S. Higgins Ave. in Missoula. Shows begin at 8 p.m., except for a 2 p.m. curtain time on Sunday, March 22. Tickets are $5-$15; visit www.mtactors.com or call (406) 945-2904 for detailed information.