Student-Directed Play Dead Man’s Cell Phone Leaves Audience Smiling but Reflective

Ringing phones, punch line zingers and awkward comedy were in abundance at this weekend’s performance of Dead Man’s Cell Phone. The play, written by Sarah Ruhl, follows a bookish young woman named Jean (Julia Larsen ’14), who discovers a dead man named Gordon (Ben Ballard ’16) at an adjacent table in a lonely café. He leaves behind an ever-ringing cell phone as his only link to life, which serves as a catalyst for Jean’s journey into the world he occupied, full of the people he knew. As Jean delves deeper into Gordon’s world, she finds herself constantly preserving his legacy.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a unique theater experience in every sense of the word. Ruhl’s influences here are varied, ranging from the absurdist humor of Samuel Beckett to the film noir genre of the 1940s. Her message is simple, though a bit heavy-handed at times; Ruhl believes that technology is destroying relationships and warping the ways in which people interact. It’s a fair point in our modern, technology-driven world.

This production marks the directing debut of Talia Curtin ’13.  She is no stranger to the stage, having appeared in multiple productions during her four years at Connecticut College. She’s also done considerable amounts of technical work in supplement to her performing. Curtin’s mix of acting savvy and technical knowledge shows in her direction of Dead Man’s Cell Phone. The play presents more than its share of challenges in staging, but Curtin’s understanding of the big picture helps to maintain a balance.

At the center of Dead Man’s Cell Phone is Jean, played impeccably by Larsen, who shows some of her most varied and introspective work to date as she maneuvers through and manipulates the loved ones of Gordon, our dead man. Larsen is a joy to watch onstage. At one moment, she can be hilarious; a second later, heartbreaking; and a moment after that, so beautifully awkward that the audience can’t help but cackle uncontrollably.

Complementing Larsen’s Jean are the two Gottlieb brothers, Gordon and Dwight, played by Ben Ballard ’16 and Julian Gordon ’14, respectively. Ballard’s Gordon, who makes but a brief cameo in the first act, opens the second act with an extended monologue, which may be the best writing in the entire show. As Gordon, Ballard is charming and smart, fostering a strong connection with the audience through a realistic conversational approach to his material.

Julian Gordon’s performance as Dwight, Gordon’s brother, provides an appropriate counterpoint. Whereas Gordon is charming and independent, Dwight has his weaker qualities, often relying on the women around him for support. Gordon’s played many a strong character onstage, which makes it refreshing to see him embrace the feeble, yet passionate character of Dwight.

Perhaps the most memorable character of the show, especially in this production, is Mrs. Gottlieb, played by an unrecognizable Alex Marz ’13. Although Marz plays a woman, his spot-on line deliveries and excellent stage presence help the audience to forget, somewhat, that he is a man. Marz owns the role  and makes no attempt to acknowledge its drag component. This begs the question of why a man was cast to play a part written for and usually portrayed by a woman. The casting choice does not detract from the material, but seems out of place.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone succeeded on many levels, but it was not without its flaws. The cabaret-style seating arrangement established an appropriate mood for the piece, but created constant sightline issues that left the audience craning to see the action onstage. The pace was noticeably slow throughout the show, creating awkward pauses, both in scenes and transitions. The production attempted to mesh the art of Edward Hopper with the stylized world of film noir, but these moments were few and far between, leaving a sometimes-confused design concept.

Still, when Dead Man’s Cell Phone was good, it was very good. Towards the end of the second act, when the show has reached its most absurd and ethereal, comes the “cell phone ballet:” a beautiful, simple sequence choreographed by Chloe Spitalny ’13. The ballet is accompanied by a haunting music cue, combining the music of Ben Zacharia ’13 and the disembodied voices of cell phone voicemails. A projector provides the only lighting for the scene, raining fragmented sentences and words down on the cast. Luckily enough, the cast has umbrellas, which figure prominently into Spitalny’s choreography.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone shows the fruits of collaboration, and is another solid entry in an already great theatrical season here at Conn.