DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONEby Sarah Ruhl
Director - Sharon Kaye Miller
Stage Manager - Imani McCants
Set/Lighting Designer - Bryan Stevenson
Sound Designer - Bill Eickenloff
Costume Designer - Sharon Kaye Miller
Properties Designer - Cathy Pritchett
Scenic Artist - Angie Glover
Asst. Scenic Artist - Mary Thomas
Set Construction - Lazaro Espinoza
Sound Board Operator - Ryan Brazil
Light Board Operator - Jessica Lesser
A Woman, Jean - Jenna Anderson
A Dead Man, Gordon - Brendan McMahon
Gordon’s Mother, Mrs. Gottlieb - Lindsay Hayward
Gordon’s Widow, Hermia - Whitney Blake Dean
Gordon’s Brother, Dwight - Brendan McMahon
The Other Woman / The Stranger - Taylor Staniforth
Reviewed Performance: 1/24/2019
Reviewed by Rebecca Roberts, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Playwright Sarah Ruhl (whose name is carelessly misspelled TWICE in Theatre Arlington’s playbill) confronts the fear of alienation from society due to modern technology, in DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE. The play opens with Jean intercepting a phone call from…you guessed it…a dead man’s cell phone. Having unknowingly injected herself into this dead man’s (Gordon’s) tragedy, Jean discovers a kind of rush in her unnecessary involvement and proceeds to insert herself in his life (and death) by retaining his cell phone. Jean’s involvement gets complicated when she falls in love with the dead man’s brother, Dwight, and has to choose between him or the cell phone. And while this might not seem like a difficult choice to make, Jean’s obsession with the conservation of memories makes her feel as though Gordon’s phone is the only thing keeping him alive.
Jenna Anderson played the impossibly difficult role of Jean with a delightful combination of precision and amiability. The entire opening scene depended solely on her timing and reactions because although she wasn’t the only character onstage, she was the only living character onstage. Anderson managed to play the role of compulsive interferer in a way that never had the audience cringing with discomfort. So often, in plays/movies where a character is burying themselves with lie after lie, the lies are delivered in such a way that anyone hearing them would have to be an idiot for not immediately seeing through them. This theatrical convention might be used as a comedic tactic, or as a way to make sure the audience picks up on the lies. However, Anderson skillfully managed to deliver her character’s fabrications in such a way that while we (the audience) knew they were lies, they could easily be believed as truth. Her intonations were spot on, but she still had the audience in stitches! Truly my only complaint with Anderson’s performance is the mere fact that she kept answering and hanging up the cell phone with her pointer finger, instead of her thumb. I couldn’t quite figure out why her interactions with the cell phone’s screen felt so unrealistic, as opposed to her beautifully performed one-sided phone conversations that felt so genuine. And all I can think to blame is the use of her pointer finger!
Taking on the challenge of playing both dead man (Gordon) and dead man’s brother (Dwight) was Brendan McMahon. And what a delight it was to watch him transition between the two roles! As Dwight, McMahon personified the soft spoken and often forgotten younger brother with a delicate ease and warmth that made him immediately likeable. Indeed, he even managed to somehow avoid sounding completely creepy when asking newly acquainted Jean if he could braid her hair. On the opposite spectrum was his performance of literal dead man walking, Gordon. His embodiment of Gordon was different from Dwight in all possible manners, except general physical appearance (and even that is debatable, as the couple sitting in front of me had the biggest shock of their life upon realizing McMahon was playing both roles). I do wish McMahon hadn’t adopted an unnecessary (and slightly confusing) accent as Gordon, to differentiate the two roles, because the alterations in his stance, demeanor, and inflection were change enough. His transitions were truly flawless! Did I leave the theatre singing his praises? Yes. Am I still confused about which of his characters I found myself crushing on? Again…yes.
This play was also peppered with three featured cast members, all three with very unique personifications. Each linked to Gordon in different ways; each with the ability to enliven their scenes and captivate their audience. Lindsay Hayward as Gordon’s mother, Mrs. Gottlieb, particularly shone through in her funeral monologue, which even included a musical element. Hayward’s larger-than-life persona at first overpowered Gordon’s wife, Hermia, in the dinner scene – creating a very clear contrast of personality. However, Hermia (as played by Whitney Blake Dean) redeemed herself later in Act 2, as her consumption of numerous cosmopolitans loosened her up, and exposed her heartbreaking vulnerabilities and regrets. Playing drunk is not an easy task, but Dean fully committed to it and was incredibly successful.
Taylor Staniforth played the role of the mysterious Other Woman/Stranger, which was one of the more confusing elements of the production. I couldn’t tell if we were supposed to know both characters were being played by the same actress, or if we were intended to shroud our common sense with the theatrical illusion that is double casting (such as in the case of Gordon/Dwight). Ultimately we discover that Other Woman and Stranger are, indeed, intended to be the same character. But perhaps a more stark difference in accent or overall appearance would have led us to better realize the uncertainty of the character’s identity. Either way, Staniforth’s performance of the Other Woman was incredibly entertaining and vivacious, regardless of the confusion that later arose.
Director Sharon Kaye Miller constructed each scene with clear specificity and unassuming brevity, so that the audience could easily focus on the story that was being told. The staging, while always interesting, was never too complex. And Miller beautifully integrated the play’s numerous aspects of magical realism, especially in the Cell Phone Ballet during Act 2. Although there were a few moments in Act 2 that felt out of place (particularly the Charlie’s Angels-style fight scene), they never took away from the overall aesthetic of the production.
Bryan Stevenson absolutely brought this production to the next level with his set and lighting designs. Inspired by a mention of artist Edward Hopper in the script, Stevenson incorporated Hopper’s famous artwork into his designs. The fairly simple stage was adorned with three upright screens, onto which each scene’s location was projected. And each of these locations were from an Edward Hopper painting that had had the figures removed, creating an empty backdrop for the play’s characters to then occupy. This was an incredibly impressive feat that definitely paid off. It made the production feel almost like an immerse museum experience where one can exist in the mind of an artist. Additionally, Stevenson’s lighting design complemented the projections and helped make them feel even more lifelike.
While director Sharon Kaye Miller’s costume design would probably suit typical productions of DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE quite well, I believe she missed an opportunity to go further with her designs in this particular production. There could have definitely been a stronger convergence of design elements, based on the highly stylized scenic projections – which already served as a strong focal point of the production’s overall composition. Matching the color and depth in Hopper’s art through the costume design would have been such a riveting visual experience. Doing so might have then created an even stronger juxtaposition between the looming and pivotal presence of the cell phone and its seemingly foreign surroundings. Instead, the costumes only went as far as to adequately distinguish each character.
I believe it is so important to introduce contemporary theatre into an area where it is not always readily available. But aside from that, I think it just as important to make sure we don’t exclude older generations of audience goers from experiencing that progression into modern theatre. When I say this Thursday night audience almost exclusively comprised of patrons 50+ years old was enthralled with this performance, I am not exaggerating. The laughter, the gasps, the lively discussions at intermission, and the (possibly a bit too loud) commentary whispered during the show by the couple in front of me, reminded me of the joy that occurs when you create different and exciting kinds of art. Support local theatre and help celebrate the era of contemporary theatre by seeing Theatre Arlington’s production of DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE.
305 W. Main Street
Arlington, TX 76010
Plays through February 3rd.
Appropriate for audiences ages 16 and up. Mild adult themes. STRONG ADULT LANGUAGE.
Thursdays at 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm; Sundays at 2:00 pm.
Tickets range from $22-24.
For more information and to purchase tickets, go to http://www.theatrearlington.org/ or call their box office at 817-275-7661.