Comedy and commentary ring true in ‘Dead Man’s Cell Phone’

Reviewed by Lory Martinez

Elizabeth Mozer’s Binghamton University directorial debut, Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, follows a woman named Jean (Christina Catechis), who finds — what else? — the phone belonging to Gordon, a dead man, and begins to answer it. She meets his mistress (Jacobella Luongo); his mother, Mrs. Gottlieb (Sarah Lees); his brother, Dwight (Rob Tendy); his wife, Hermia (Arshia Panicker) and his organ-trafficking business associate, “the stranger” (also played by Luongo). On the surface, this is a situational comedy about a woman who keeps this man’s memory alive by keeping in contact with the people in his life, but ultimately it is a play about communication.

In this world of cellphones and constant contact, the play comments on how disruptive being connected to our phones 24/7 can be. The repetitive ringing of the cell phone during key moments in the play marks the main problem with communication today: We are always there. As Jean puts it, if you have a cell phone, you’re around. It’s why, she says, she doesn’t have one … and becomes obsessed with Gordon’s because he isn’t there anymore. She feels his “presence” as the phone rings during the funeral, her romantic encounter with Dwight and Hermia’s drunken description of her married life.

Though at times one wonders why it seems that Jean just dropped into Gordon’s life and has nothing else to do but answer his phone, the play’s central comedic undertone makes up for this aspect, including several times when the fourth wall is broken. For example, Jean points out that there seem to be no employees in the café where she happened to find herself sitting near a dead man and his lentil soup. Indeed even later, there are poignant monologues about loss and love alongside tongue- in-cheek jokes about the nature of Jean’s unexplained obsession with Gordon Gottlieb’s phone.

Occasionally, however, the comedy overshadows the few attempts at poetry. At one point, Jean is describing to Dwight how much she loves different types of paper. At the end of the scene, Yan’s Tiersen’s piano ballad, La Valse d’Amelie, plays as they get buried in the paper that was meant to flow down gracefully to surround them. Though I found this to be particularly humorous, at other moments, it seemed that the play was trying too hard with its overarching commentary on communication.

In a later scene, Jean and the dead man’s ghost (Jake Wentlent) sit at a café in heaven and watch an elaborate dance to “the music of the spheres” which is supposed to represent the way cell phone conversations stay in the air and float all around us … or something along those lines. The dance itself was interesting but felt a little out of place and confusing.

Even so, the play ended on a clearer note as the lighthearted romp moved forward and finished off with a gushy declaration of love and a somehow hilarious death (not to give away too much).

Aside from an occasional disconnect within its comedic poetry, Mozer’s production keeps you laughing, and I don’t doubt you’ll leave the theater smiling.

IF YOU GO: The Binghamton University Theatre Department’s presentation of Dead Man’s Cell Phone continues at 8 p.m. Friday andSaturday and 2 p.m. Sunday (March 15-17) in the Watters Theater of BU’s Anderson Center. Tickets: Call 777-ARTS or visit anderson.binghamton.edu.

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