Saturday, October 22, 2016

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Dead Man's Cell Phone"

Disclosure: the reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of the Cloverdale Playhouse.

To the bemusement of some and the frustration of many, the constant interruptions made by cell phone ring-tones has become a part of everyday life; in the words of Mrs. Gottlieb in Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone, "there are only three sacred places where cell phones are not tolerated: the theatre, church, and the toilet", but even these are no longer sacrosanct, much to the ire of many people both in the play and in our own experiences.

To say society is obsessed with technology is an understatement at best; people burying their heads over cell phone screens to constantly connect with others while ignoring people sitting with them can be witnessed every day: the more we seem to connect, the more we actually disconnect.

Sarah Ruhl is a multi-award-winning playwright, whose quirky and provocative plays have secured her name among the most highly regarded contemporary writers. The Clean House ran at the Cloverdale Playhouse a few seasons ago, and now Dead Man's Cell Phone takes the boards in director Maureen Costello's solid production.

With a mix of comic moments and serious social insights, the episodic structure of Ms. Ruhl's play, and her forays into magical-realism [the eponymous dead man speaks to us from the dead, and are some of the scenes meant to be dreams or not?], keep audiences simultaneously entertained and puzzled at how she combines the ordinary and familiar with the extraordinary and unexpected.

The plot revolves around eternal optimist Jean [Danielle Phillips], who answers a persistently ringing cell phone of a stranger at the next table in a diner, only to discover that he is dead, and heading her on a journey that connects her with his mother Mrs. Gottlieb [Fiona Macleod], his widow Hermia [Sarah Worley], his brother Dwight [Michael Buchanan], 'the other woman' [Tara Fenn], and inevitably Gordon [Paul Neace], the dead man himself.

A bit of a loner herself, Jean knows nothing about Gordon, but in her attempts to assuage an expected grief from his family, she invents loving relationships and Gordon's last words and his attempts to connect with them just before he died. -- These are so out of kilter with the reality of Gordon's life and relationships, but Jean persists and the complications grow as she tries to extricate herself from the scenarios she created. In fact, her inventions seem to have positive effects on them. And when Gordon speaks at the top of Act II, and we learn the extent of his real life occupation, we understand his family's initial hesitation at accepting Jean's version of his wishes for them.

Ms. Costello's ensemble actors deliver the sometimes bizarre dialogue with conviction in the increasingly strange scenarios. She directs them at a steady pace that sometimes allows indulgent pauses in lengthy monologues, though there is a variety of pacing that sustains interest. -- Her choice to add a Narrator [Rachael Dotson] to punctuate scenes with quotes from Charles Dickens and John Donne, and references to painter Edward Hopper that Ms. Ruhl places at the front of her script, adds another layer to the script's complexity.

How Jean responds to situations that test her assumptions, and how she changes through the education she receives from Gordon and those he left behind, are credibly managed by Ms. Phillips: her vivacity in the role allows us to share her frustrations so we are on her side. And her interactions with the eccentricities of the other characters is so matter-of-fact that we never doubt her sincerity.

Ms. Fenn's seductress 'other woman' and her second role as one of Gordon's  'business associates' are delivered with an archness and acumen that keep us in suspense about her real motives. -- Ms. Worley's estranged wife who loosens up with cocktails, provides insights into an unhappy marriage. -- Mr. Buchanan underplays Dwight's position of second-fiddle to his brother, but emerges as a confident lover for Jean.

Ms. Macleod seems to relish the role of Mrs. Gottlieb, a fiercely independent and in-charge woman who tolerates no fools; her outlandish and shoot-from-the-hip pronouncements will bear no opposition. In Ms. Macleod's capable portrayal, Ms. Ruhl's comic dialogue is at its best, and she emerges as perhaps the most memorable character in this fine ensemble.

In the complex role of the dead man, Mr. Neace shines as he slowly and methodically tells the truth from beyond the grave: he has nothing to lose in admitting his flaws; and while his attitudes may not be of the highest moral order, we see how he is moulded by the society we all live in. "There are no errors in the afterlife", he tells us, though we all tell lies to help one another.

The collaborative set design uses simple furniture and large signs to effectively signify the play's various locations, but the opening night scene changes needed to be faster and more efficient in order to sustain audience attention to Ms. Ruhl's quirky plotting. This, and lighting that sometimes left actors in shadow, will likely be remedied for future performances.