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  • Dead Man’s Cell Phone
  • J. Chris Westgate
Dead Man’s Cell Phone. By Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Bart DeLorenzo. South Coast Repertory Theater, Costa Mesa, CA. 27 September 2008.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone is the latest offering from Sarah Ruhl, who is fast making a name for herself as a writer of insouciant though nevertheless trenchant comedies. Following The Clean House, which was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, and Ruhl’s designation as a MacArthur Fellow in 2006, Dead Man’s Cell Phone opened to generous enthusiasm; its Southern California debut at the South Coast Repertory Theater in Costa Mesa was the fourth production of the play since its world premiere in 2007. Dead Man’s Cell Phone, which explores the fragmentation of conversations, voices, and lives, moves irreverently among subjects like mortality and memory, the selling of body parts, obsession with stationery paper, lobster bisque, the afterlife, and, of course, the eponymous cell phone. This production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone was distinctly surrealistic in its incongruous, comic situations, duologic and monologic structure, scenography, and direction, offering a humorous though still penetrating critique of contemporary society’s somewhat feckless struggle for connection.

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Shannon Holt and Margaret Welsh in Dead Man’s Cell Phone. (Photo: Ed Krieger.)

The play’s affinity with surrealism is apparent from the first scene, which reveals two characters sitting in a café: Jean (played by Margaret Welsh), facing forward and loudly finishing her lobster bisque, and Gordon (Lenny Von Dohlen), facing away from the audience, slumping slightly to his left. When Gordon’s cell phone unleashes its harsh trilling and he doesn’t answer, Jean goes through several stages of response in her effort to grasp the finality of his condition: assuming rudeness, believing that he’s deaf, and ultimately discovering he’s dead. After she calls 911 on Gordon’s phone, the phone continues ringing and, remarkably, she answers it and takes messages—from Gordon’s mother, his business partner (they sell human organs), and even his estranged wife. Gordon’s death and cell phone become, absurdly, Ruhl’s conceit for dramatizing the tenuous links among disparate and disappointing lives in the play. Now obsessed with answering Gordon’s phone, Jean meets his family, falls in love with his brother Dwight, and meets Gordon in an afterlife premised on spending eternity with the one you most loved, so the misanthropic Gordon is alone and bored. Bizarrely, the cell phone permits Jean to bring something like hope, through invented messages from Gordon, to his family that hardly knows each other and, through the effort of bringing them together, to herself.

Ruhl depicts this disconnection—and Jean’s efforts to overcome it—through the very structure of Dead Man’s Cell Phone. Divided principally between [End Page 481] monologues and duologues, the scenes collide logically and chronologically to suggest fragmentation of social structures like family and friendship. Mrs. Gottlieb, whose eulogy for Gordon takes the form of monologue, talks in digressions about the loss of her son, the stability of churches, and the nerve of people answering cell phones “in the shitter” (15). The monologue itself, a form in which she can receive no answer, suggests the disconnection and isolation she feels, however comically. Later, Dwight takes Jean to a stationery store where they make a connection over their shared fascination with thick, textured paper and discover newfound intimacy— only to have it shattered by the ringing of the phone that Jean still needs to answer. Complementing the monologues, this sort of duologue demonstrates how desperately the characters need to find some connection—to each other or to Gordon—but how tenuous the connections are. Adding to the contrast of these scenes is Gordon’s monologue at the beginning of act 2, before his coronary in the café. Hilarious with respect to content—Gordon describes how his wife eats cereal, his selling of body parts, and his thwarted desire for lobster bisque—this monologue also reveals what has gone wrong in Ruhl’s world. Its bizarre juxtapositions proffer a cynical portrait of a society tending toward apathy, if not amorality.

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pp. 481-483
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