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TRTC delivers a comedic meditation on mortality and media with ‘Dead Man’s Cell Phone’

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By Nicolette Toussaint
Sopris Sun Correspondent 


The ringing of a cell phone, that ubiquitous irritation, interrupts Thunder River Theatre Company’s funny new production almost from the get-go. But it’s not an audience transgression this time; it’s the play itself.

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Jean, played by TRTC newcomer Sonya Meyer, occupies a café with a lone stranger, and it’s his phone that’s ringing, ringing, ringing…

Jean prompts him: “Your phone is ringing…

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“Aren’t you going to answer… Answer the damn phone!”

Puzzled by his non-response, Jean soon discovers that Gordon, brought to life by actor Brian R. McIsaac, has gone offline with a mild case of rigor mortis. Jean, who owns no phone of her own, answers Gordon’s.

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Dead Man’s Cell Phone, a quirky comedy written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Sarah Ruhl, explores how the technology that connects us also addicts and isolates us. The compulsion to respond to the demands of a digital device is so common that psychologists have named it —“digital entrapment”.

Jean becomes digitally entrapped not only by the demands of Gordon’s ringing cell phone, but also by being drawn into his former life. Jean soon meets Gordon’s mistress, his family and a shadowy-and-sinister associate.  

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Invited to a family dinner, Jean delivers “messages” that Gordon never sent in an earnest attempt to provide closure to his disconnected intimates: Gordon’s elegantly acid mother, Mrs. Gottlieb, Gordon’s widow Hermia, and his brother Dwight. All through their awkwardly humorous conversation, Jean tiptoes around the fact that she never actually met Gordon. She deflects an onslaught of bizarre and intrusive questions from his mother by saying that she knew Gordon from work.

The family blanches visibly. Was she on the “inbound” or “outbound” side of the business, they want to know?

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“Inbound,” she replies.

Without spoiling the plot, suffice it to say that this apparently harmless fiction about Gordon’s work — an endeavor the family darkly hints is “toxic” — will take Jean in an outbound direction. Entirely out of this world.

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While Ruhl’s whimsical script provides plenty of chuckles, it’s sometimes a bit over the top. During dinner, for example, Jean ceremoniously produces a coffee cup, a saltshaker, a knife and a spoon purloined from the café. Offering them as gifts to family members, Jean presents them as symbolic messages from the departed. Although this stage business and the dialog around it felt a bit strained to this reviewer, Ruhl’s play is intended as a metaphysical meditation. The playwright’s world isn’t required to make sense, nor must it follow consistent rules. (It doesn’t.)

During Act II, the characters meet in an electronic purgatory, effectively portrayed with impersonal menace by Alya Howe’s choreography and presented in a darkened theatre lit only by cell phones. The audience meets Gordon posthumously, and as the act unfolds, Jean, Gordon and Mrs. Gottlieb must all reconcile their life’s actions in the LED light of divine retribution.

For example, Jean, who has fallen in love with Dwight, commits a mortal sin, one that has been called “phubbing” (a combination of the words “phone” and “snubbing”.) As the two lovers profess their undying fealty, Jean feels nonetheless compelled to continually answer Gordon’s cell phone. Dwight professes undying connection. Jean waves him away. Dwight persists. Jean coldly phubbs him off, shouting, “I’m on the phone!”

Lured in ever deeper, Jean is eventually snared by Gordon’s dangerous business. Without giving away the plot, suffice it to say that this particular digital entrapment has life-altering consequences.

Brian McIsaac, portraying Gordon in his TRTC debut, gives the audience a posthumous character that is both funny and creepy. As Jean, a character Mrs. Gottlieb likens to a “comforting small casserole”, Sonya Meyer tranforms a nebbish into a nimble lead and comedic foil. Gerald DeLisser plays Dwight, the one truly likeable family member, as an approachable everyman.

Chloe Conger is sexy and archly hilarious as the “other woman” who gives lessons on how to provocatively apply lipstick in public. Wendy Perkins is properly exasperating as Gordon’s mom. As Gordon’s widow, Dani Grace Kopf delivers “too much information” and the results of too much alcohol with comic precision.

Despite the way Ruhl’s script oddly mixes the mundane with the metaphysical, TRTC’s cast and Corey Simpson’s direction keep it moving and funny throughout, delivering a message about love, death and intimacy. As Jean says, “It’s like, when everyone has their cell phones on, no one is there. It’s like we’re all disappearing the more we’re there.”

The play premiered last Thursday and entertained a sold-out house on Friday. Thunder River Theatre Company offers upcoming performances of “Dead Man’s Cell phone” on the evenings of Oct. 6, 7, 12, 13 and 14, and a matinee on Oct. 8. Tickets available at www.thunderrivertheatre.com.

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