It was a small, but appreciative crowd on opening night of Dead Man’s Cell Phone, the latest entry by playwright Sarah Ruhl making its debut via No Strings Theatre Company at the Black Box Theatre April 12. Did they get what they came for? Depends. As Ceil Herman writes in the director’s notes of the performance program, the discerning audience member should enter with one thought in mind: “Expect the unexpected!” It’s a good directive to observe.
At its heart, Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a scathing commentary on the importance we, as a society, place on technology. It connects us, sure, but it also has a way of stripping away our humanity and reducing us to slaves of convenience. As the female protagonist Jean says, at one point, “a ringing phone demands to be answered.” The technology demands our instant response and, because of that, many times those important one-on-one social engagements are sacrificed in favor of “let me just take this call, it won’t take long… promise…”
For the most part, the play moves along briskly, despite a preponderance of set changes in the blackouts between scenes. It slides from comically unsettling to metaphysically surreal with an ease that belies the work necessary to pull such a performance off. Once again, Herman’s direction is as nuanced as the performances she pulls from her actors. It is there, however, that she often finds her strengths, choosing actors who aren’t afraid to explore uncomfortable territory with believability and charm, then letting them bleed all over her stage, emotionally speaking.
A virtual newcomer to Las Cruces stages (he played the DJ in last season’s quirky Fat Chance), Eric Brekke is terrific in polarized dual roles. Playing both the swaggering, bombastic Gordon and his younger brother, the polite and docile Dwight, Brekke successfully develops two completely different characters, switching gears effortlessly from one to the other between scenes. It’s a testament to his ability that several audience members were overheard asking where the actor who played Gordon was during the curtain call.
He is at his best, however, in an extended and revealing monologue delivered by the eponymous dead man, in which he sums up not only his existence on this planet, but also the disconnectedness that created the society which, in turn, created him. It’s a powerful moment that is both completely engaging and somewhat repulsive. It’s a pretty safe bet you’ll never look at sushi, or lobster bisque, the same way again.
As the quirky Jean, Nora Brown is sweet and likable, though perhaps not nearly as off-center as the character’s actions would imply. One would almost expect a bookish and nondescript characterization, completely downplaying any sexuality in Laura Ashley prints and sensible shoes. You know, the kind of woman would pick up a dead guy’s cell phone and decide to become, not only his answering service – apologetically informing clients of his demise – but also his spin doctor, lying to family members, mistresses and a despondent wife in order to make them feel better about both the man and the way he perceived them?
Brown’s depiction of Jean, though charming, is far from a nebbishistic performance. Instead, she displays an underlying sensuality, accented by clothing that accentuates her curves, which works marvelously well in the scenes with Dwight and handily explains why he would fall for her so readily, but in the end, may be a false pretense. I suspect the playwright intended for Dwight and Jean to discover in each other a comparable longing simply to be acknowledged – much less to be loved.
The chemistry between these meek rabbits, therefore, should have been more awkward and fumbling. Brekke and Brown, on the other hand, are far from awkward in their intimate scenes. Trembling, yes, but the attraction between them is palpable and, dare I say, even a bit steamy. It does not, in any way, detract from the proceedings. Instead it only really serves to make Jean more of a cipher than she should be.
As the imperious Mrs. Gottlieb, Gordon and Dwight’s glamorously selfish mother, Karen Caroe steals every scene she is in, flouncing and drawing out her melodramatic diva pauses like a pro. In another dual role, that of the mysterious mistress Carlotta and the mousy wife Hermia, Jamie Bronstein comes to life in a scene in which she confides drunkenly in Jean about her sex life with Gordon. She is both sad and hopeful, though doomed to remain under the thumb of her domineering ex-mother-in-law; and it shows.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone is not without its problem areas – including a cloyingly sweet fetishizing of stationary and a completely unexpected and disturbing suicide – but as forays into magic realism go, it’s one of the more thought-provoking offerings being paraded across local boards in recent memory. It also has one of the best closing lines I’ve heard in a long time. It’s clear that playwright Sarah Ruhl deserves the accolades she has received for past works, including the Pulitzer Prize-nominated offerings, The Clean House in 2004 and In The Next Room in 2010.
If you have an ability to effortlessly suspend disbelief and a willingness to be engaged in a thoughtful and off-beat way, Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a clear choice. If, however, you’re expecting a simple storyline with predictable characterizations and unsurprising resolve, you may want to give it a miss. Chances are good that if you’re attending a production at the Black Box Theatre, the former is true. Pushing boundaries has become a No Strings Theatre Company standard that is very well served through this production.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone continues through April 28, 2013 at the Black Box Theatre, 430 N. Main Street, Las Cruces, New Mexico. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Sunday matinees on April 21 and 28 at 2:30 p.m. and a Thursday evening performance on April 25 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10.00 regular admission, $9.00 students and seniors over 65, and all seats on Thursday are $7.00. Reservations (575) 523-1223. Find out more by going here: http://www.no-strings.org/DMCP.html