Friday, Jun 23, 2017

Dead Man’s Cell Phone (2009)

Photo by Jenny Graham

Photo by Jenny Graham

Can a man fall in love with a theater? There’s nothing wrong with the Angus Bowmer or the Elizabethan, but man I’ve been enjoying the New Theatre for the last few years now. The latest treat is Dead Man’s Cell Phone, a new-ish play by Sarah Ruhl. The play itself is good, but the company does such a great job of executing the production that it is elevated to a truly special place.

It stars Sarah Agnew as Jean, a disconnected woman in a world of superficial connections (thanks to the ubiquity of cell phones) who answers a man’s cell phone mostly to stop its incessant ringing; she quickly discovers that the phone’s owner hasn’t been answering it because… well, the title gives this bit away. A few phone calls later, along with a few vaguely-worded answers to callers’ questions, Jean finds herself enmeshed in the dead man’s life – dining with his bereaved family, meeting for drinks with his mistress, and eventually dipping her toes into his (incredibly unsettling, unethical, illegal) work. From this springboard we’re launched into an exploration of what our conncections with one another mean and how connected we actually are – what do we know about one another, how much do we want to know, and what are our obligations to those connected to us?

The strength of the production, however, rests less on the text than on the performances. Sarah Agnew is an import from distant lands… well, Minneapolis… here expressly for this production, and she is note-perfect for the role. Lovely in person, she affects rumpled introversion at the beginning of the play and slowly, sloooowwwwly blossoms throughout. Not that she becomes a bird of paradise by the end, more like a well-watered fern, but still. What most impressed me was the way she pulled off a sincere sweet nature in the intimate three-quarters arrangement of the New Theatre; nine times out of ten, kindness reads very “actorly” on the stage, making her performance all the more enjoyable. Ms. Agnew headlines a solid ensemble cast who all deserve kudos, but Jeffrey King (the deceased Gordon) deserves special mention. There is a monologue that he delivers at the start of the second half of the production that is worth the price of admission all by itself. Mr. King has been a distinguished performer at OSF for years whose work I have enjoyed, but he never knocked my socks off before; well, I still don’t know where the socks are that I wore when I saw Cell Phone. I highly suspect that any male actor seeing his performance will be thinking “audition piece!” but only because Mr. King pulls off the master’s trick of making the difficult look effortless.

The sound designer, Paul James Prendergast, does an excellent job with multiple responsibilities – music, ambient sound, and of course the ringing of cell phones. Lonnie Alcaraz, the lighting designer, has come up with some very arresting interactions with the action of the play; we get this a lot in the New Theatre, one of the reasons I love it here. Less successful is Christopher Acebo’s scenic design – yes, Christopher Acebo, whose work is often spectacular. Some moments are sublime, such as the small paper houses at the end of the first half of the play, but other set pieces (and particularly the zebra(?) rug that appears with Catherine Coulson’s Mrs. Gottlieb) simply seem incongrous. I’m not easily distracted, and I found myself staring at the rug. Not good. Those small nitpicks, however, don’t detract from what is a very enjoyable afternoon or evening spent in the theater; Dead Man’s Cell Phone should be on your short list to see before it shuts down in a month.