by Phil Beck
Iowa City – A cell phone ringing repeatedly in a small café signals the beginning of Dead Man’s Cell Phone, the Dreamwell Theatre production that opened Friday Dec.9 at Public Space One. A wily black comedy by Sarah Ruhl, Cell Phone recounts what happens when a lonely and naïve young woman named Jean (Melissa Kaska) answers the ringing phone and is irresistibly drawn into the life of its owner. Since the play’s premise is contained in its title, it’s not giving too much away to reveal that the owner, a mysterious businessman named Gordon (Sage Spiker), can’t answer his phone because he’s dead. Sarah answers for him and finds her calling, so to speak.
She makes the fateful decision to keep the phone, telling everyone that Gordon wished her to have it, which precipitates a series of encounters with members of his family—his haughty mother (Valerie Davine Bills), jaded widow (Madonna Smith), and neglected younger brother (Hunter Menken)—as well as his embittered mistress (Regan Loula). To each Jean tries to bring comfort in her own eccentric way, causing unexpected complications, but it’s when she starts to receive ominous phone calls from Gordon’s former business associates that things really get strange.
Like all comedies with a madcap bent, its situations get more outrageous as the plot moves along, but Ruhl seasons the laughs with enough moments of philosophical pondering to show she has something else in mind, too. Originally produced in 2006, Cell Phone is a timely satire of modern society’s obsession with technology and growing preference for electronic over face-to-face interaction. Because it’s set in a pre-Twitter world, it might seem a bit quaint to some, but the questions it raises are just as relevant today as a decade ago, if not more so. The theme of Dreamwell’s current season, “Am I (dis)connected?” is central to the play, which places the protagonist Jean (and the audience) inside a debate about the implications of phone-y communication for human relatedness in a digitalized age. Ruhl’s semi-farcical style might suggest she doesn’t want us reading anything too deep into her musings on these matters, but it also might mean that she’s just hedging her bets, hiding serious concern behind absurd situations and eccentric behavior.
Obscuring her intentions even further, her play comes close to spoofing the kind of Existential theater it draws on for some of its most striking effects: a brilliant joke keeps the audience literally Waiting for GOrDOn, for instance, and a key scene in Act II cleverly draws upon Jean-Paul Sarte’s famous trapped-in-Hell drama No Exit. Ruhl’s penchant for mischief has her playing memorably with theatrical form in an ingenious break between the two acts the like of which I’ve never seen before and I’ll bet you haven’t either. It’s almost worth the price of admission alone.
Director Brian Tanner keeps the evening moving along at a fairly good pace, though a brisker one would have made the play’s quirky humor even quirkier. The first two or three scenes unfold slowly, and the prolonged pauses during set changes tests the audience’s patience. Fortunately, the production finds its footing during an amusingly awkward dinner scene near the end of Act I, and nearly everything in the second act clicks.
As the innocent Jean, Melissa Kaska skillfully threads the needle between well-meaning zeal and foolishness, and in her scenes with Hunter Menken, she radiates a sweetness that gives the play its heart. Menken himself is excellent as the unappreciated Dwight, signaling boy-next-door decency with an infectious grin and easy mannerisms. These two actors have an onstage chemistry that ensures the play’s eventual romantic turn is both believable and welcome.
Valerie Bills has several fine moments (and ultra glam costume changes) as the peeved matriarch, who can’t quite believe that her son’s untimely death wasn’t meant as a slight to her. Madonna Smith and Regan Loula nicely complement each other as disillusioned women wronged by the same man, swallowing bitterness with their cocktails. Smith’s deadpan drunk scene in Act II is one of the play’s highlights.
Spoiler Alert: When the Dead Man himself finally appears, Sage Spiker virtually hijacks the show. Striding back and forth across the stage, delivering a bombastic monologue with all the volume he can muster, he fairly bursts with Trumpian chutzpah. Such an explosion of pent-up words makes a convincing argument that the worst thing about being dead is not having an audience.
Both he, the rest of the cast, and Sarah Ruhl’s witty and frequently wise words deserve an audience for Dead Man Cell Phone’s remaining performances. Remember to turn your cell phones off before the show starts.