By David Brooks Andrews
(Published in Waltham Tribune)
Hovey Players often gravitates towards strange, quirky, mind-bending plays.
“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” by Sarah Ruhl, recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the Genius Grant, certainly is one of the stranger plays that Hovey has produced in recent years.
It opens with a young woman in a café noticing that a fellow diner isn’t answering his ringing cell phone. She (Jean) answers it for him (Gordon) and soon realizes he didn’t answer it because he has died while sitting in the cafe. Even though she had never met him before, she improbably continues to answer his phone, consoles the callers, and creates stories to placate his mistress, wife, mother, and brother, all of whom he alienated when he was alive.
Jean claims to have worked for Gordon—much to the shock of his family members—not realizing until later in the play that he was an illegal trafficker in human organs, who would pay donors very little while making huge sums for himself.
One of the play’s themes is how cell phones interrupt and take over our lives while we ignore the very people who are right in front of us. It’s not quite so clear what Ruhl is trying to say about illegal trafficking of human organs, other than to show another way people dehumanize each other, treating them as mere body parts, and in the process she creates a truly despicable character.
Unfortunately, Ruhl doesn’t do enough to entice us to take the journey with her. If playwrights are going to lead audiences down the rabbit hole into strange worlds and unusual perspectives, they need to capture our imaginations and hearts. And Ruhl ignores many of the ways good theater does that, as if her only responsibility is to create a surrealistic world and expect us to enter it.
There’s very little reason or logic to what the characters do. Why would Jean or anyone feel compelled to maintain the cell phone and answer the calls of a dead man she had never met? It’s an intriguing idea, but it needs to be justified more. Why would she create stories to make his relatives feel better about him? Why would she travel to South Africa to help maintain his illegal organ trafficking?
Of all the characters, only Jean, and to some extent Gordon’s brother, Dwight, are sympathetic. And with the play’s focus on the disconnection between people that’s ironically created by cell phones, there’s little opportunity for the very thing that makes theater compelling—emotional interaction between characters and between the actors playing them.
All that said, there are some real high points to the production, which is well directed by Kristin Hughes. Katie Gluck brings a great deal of warmth, life, and naturalness to Jean. One would love to see her in a play that makes better use of her considerable talents. She offers a wonderfully timid and squeamish contrast to Nicole Dunn as Gordon’s deliciously sexy mistress. Dunn is also good later in the play as a gun-toting mystery woman in a skin-tight bodysuit and speaking with the accent of a foreign spy.
There’s a transcendent, well acted scene in which Jean goes with Dwight to his stationary store, and he asks if he can braid her hair thinking that a braid involves two, not three, strands. The stationary story is represented by a display on wheels, beautifully designed by Cinda Lavely, that opens up to reveal evocative rows of stationary and light coming through a rippled window at the top. During the scene, houses constructed of paper are dangled and bounced from strings. The scene gives a magical feeling of real connection, until Gordon’s cell phone rings and Jean insists on answering it.
Gluck is so irresistible and emotionally alive when she returns to Dwight at the end of the play finally ready to give herself wholeheartedly to him. Jon Nuquist as Dwight has an appealing understated manner as he falls in love with Jean.
Edmund Golaski as Gordon is excellent at making us believe he’s alive as we look at the back of him, and then dead when Jean gives him a little nudge. He’s no-nonsense direct as he speaks from beyond the grave. One wonders if he might have given the evil character a little more dimension, even if the play doesn’t call for it.
Karen Dervin makes Hermia, Gordon’s widow, feel as odd as the rest of the family, as she should. She has a touching drunken scene in which she imagines she’s Gordon’s mistress rather than his wife.
Christine Connor plays Gordon’s mother, Mrs. Gottlieb, as a formal, imperious woman who’s emotionally attached to Gordon even after his death. This is part of the mythology Ruhl creates in this play—that after death we end up with whomever we’ve given the most attention and love to in this life. If we’ve loved only ourselves, we end up alone.
One looks forward to Hovey finding plays more worthy of its efforts and talents than this extremely strange and not terribly rewarding piece.
“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” by Sarah Ruhl
Through November 24
Hovey Players, 9 Spring St. at Joel’s Way, Waltham
$18; $15 for students and seniors