A Review of Dead Man’s Cell Phone

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By Toni Wilson Wood

Waterloo – I…I’m not sure what to say. Actually there’s a lot I could say, and will, but sitting in the sold out audience of opening night of Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone at the Walker Building just across from Waterloo Community Playhouse…there was just so much to take in. The script is filled with dark humor and touching poetics, and examines life, death, love, lobster bisque, and technology.

This script is a very hard script to deal with. There’s a lot of poetic language and imagery and the play takes us from a nondescript cafe to the dead man’s mother’s house, a church, the airport, a stationary shop’s backroom and purgatory. And there’s a cell phone ballet, which isn’t what you think it is.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone is not the usual fare that WCP does–not that there’s anything wrong with doing standards like Singin’ in the Rain. This production was just a breath of fresh air and this reviewer would love to see more productions along these lines. The little theatre in the Walker Building is perfect for a show like this–I doubt that something like Dead Man’s Cell Phone would be able to sell a theatre like Hope Martin. This past season of WCP has been challenging in material, and it would be a good thing to see more of this challenging material.

That being said, this is not a show for everyone. And spoilers follow, so be warned.

It all starts, innocently enough, with an incessantly ringing cell phone, the owner of which sits idly by, and a young woman being vexed enough by the ringing to answer it. This takes the young girl, Jean, on a life altering journey to heal the family of the dead man, Gordon.

Jean is played by Katherine Smith, a Theatre Performance major at UNI. Her Jean is innocent, beguiling and just a touch mad, yet grounded in the determination to continue answering Gordon’s cell phone. Her Jean is just delightfully awkward as she meets Gordon’s crazily drunk mother, Mrs. Gottlieb, and his equally crazily drunk widow, Hermia and his stuttering brother, Dwight. Through all of the insanity, she remains steadfast to trying to help Gordon’s family, telling straight out lies about what Gordon said about them before he died–to comic ends. Her scenes with Dwight, whom she falls in love with, are just dizzily beautiful.

Donna Baumgartner plays Mrs. Gottlieb, a deeply damaged mother who loves one of her sons more, and just cannot bear his death. “I see it as my job to mourn him until the day I die.” That line, delivered brokenly as Mrs. Gottlieb discussed with Jean the sadness of someone younger dying before you, especially a child, all the while adding from her flask to her tea–that just slammed me right in the heart.

Hermia, played by Leslie Cohn, is a force to be reckoned with. She spends most of the first scene she is in stealing everyone’s drinks and like she might not know what to do with herself now that her husband, who she long since appeared to stop loving, is dead. Cohn gives up the full force of Hermia until she’s in a scene later in the play with Smith, at a cocktail lounge. Cohn is most impressive as she drunkenly totters on six inch heels, talking about her last time having sex with Gordon. Cohn’s Hermia is deeply lost and damaged, and seeking a way out, from the pain and suffering of her life. I’ve seen Cohn in many shows and every time I see her on stage, I wish to see her more.

Brian Langer plays Dwight in his debut with WCP. His stutter is endearing as he plays the beleaguered and less loved younger brother. When Dwight falls in love with Jean, it’s just beautiful. He (as well as the other actors) works the poetic language of the play into a beautiful tapestry that details young first love beautifully. I look forward to seeing more of Langer on stage.

Andrea Morris plays both The Other Woman and The Stranger. It was unfortunate that these parts were small because Morris is fantastic in both roles, particularly as The Stranger.

And now, the dead man in question, Gordon, played by Grant Tracy. I have seen Tracy play many characters on stage, but I think this is my favorite role that he has played. Gordon is, as all the characters in Dead Man’s Cell Phone are, multi-layered, but it isn’t until the second act that you really get into the inner layers of Gordon’s character. Tracy’s Gordon is not a good man–he works in the organ procurement market, he has a loveless marriage, and on the day he dies, he only wants some lobster bisque, which leads him to the cafe and angry that Jean got the last bowl. Tracy plays Gordon with breathless confidence, with no regrets about his life–at least that’s what he says. In the end, Gordon, like all the characters, was just looking for love.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a beautiful and painful look at love, relationships and technology. The actors all do a fantastic job of taking poetic language and grounding it. The show is darkly funny, and the audience at opening night were definitely laughing. There were many times, particularly during the second act, that I wanted to laugh, but couldn’t, because I was touched to tears. This is a show that you understand with your heart, even as you laugh at these poor characters’ foibles.

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