The title says it all. "Dead Man's Cell Phone," by playwright-poet Sarah Ruhl and directed by Los Angeles-based Christopher Liam Moore, opened in OSF's intimate New Theatre as a charming, whimsical counterpoint to the sturdier productions in the Bowmer.
"Dead Man's Cell Phone" sports a playful, surreal surface. As it opens, a quiet, introspective Jean (Sarah Agnew) is sitting in a nearly deserted café, finishing some soup. Her reverie is disturbed by the insistent ringing of a neighboring diner's cell phone. Polite requests that he either answer the phone or turn it off are met with no answer. When she strides over to his table to confront him, she discovers he is dead.
But as Jean later explains, a ringing phone demands to be answered. As she fields a flurry of incoming calls, she gradually—and not unwillingly—becomes enmeshed in the man's untidy life. She also begins to fall in love with him.
Gordon Gottlieb (Jeffrey King)—the dead man—appears to have had as full a life as Jean's is empty. He had family, a spouse, a lover, an exciting job. Jean is curious and envious and uses his cell phone as a map—or more accurately, a genie's magic lamp—to enter a new world.
Somehow, Jean shows up at Gordon's funeral and hears an impassioned oration by his eccentric mother (Catherine E. Coulson). She encounters Gordon's flamboyant mistress (Miriam A. Laube). Gordon's mother invites her to dinner and Jean falls in love with Gordon's downtrodden brother, Dwight (Brent Hinkley). She later provides comfort and sympathy to Gordon's bitter wife (Terri McMahon).
In life, Gordon was, in fact, self-absorbed and cruel. He also operated outside the law in a dangerous profession. But, as Jean slowly learns about Gordon's childhood, marriage and love affair, her innate compassion prompts her to give each member of his family an unlikely, loving "last message" from Gordon, to make him appear in death much nicer than he was in life.
Ruhl never explains how all of this happens, how Jean goes from simply taking cell phone messages to becoming an active participant in Gordon's life. And, if the action in the first act is vaguely surreal, Ruhl pulls out the stops completely in Act II.
For all the director's notes about "Dead Man's Cell Phone" exploring the deeper meaning of communication and connection in our lives, this is not a profound play. Charming, yes. Playful, certainly. Enjoyable, definitely.
Philosophical? Perhaps only in the eyes of some other beholder.
Playwright Ruhl writes brilliantly offbeat characters. Director Christopher Liam Moore uses his cast to make the most of them. Each actor has a star turn, from Jeffrey King's mordant Gordon to Catherine E. Coulson's bizarre, rib-steak obsessed Mrs. Gottlieb, to Laube's deliberately over-the-top femme fatale, Hinkley's charming and somewhat dim Dwight and, especially, Terri McMahon's hysterically funny drunken wifely diatribe. (Her description of thong underwear will stay in my mind forever.) That Sarah Agnew can somehow fade into the background as each of these characters holds forth and yet still be a central presence is quite remarkable.
The production is, as always, spectacular. Christopher Acebo has created a flexible but evocative minimalist set and costumes by Alex Jaeger subtly capture character. Lighting design is by Lonnie Alacaraz and sound design is by Paul James Prendergast.
"Dead Man's Cell Phone" is pleasantly and amusingly in the New Theatre until June 19.