Review: “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” (The Enthusiasts Theatre Company)

"Dead Man's Cell Phone": Erin Kelly Outson and Gary F Barth. Photo by Victor E. Bvzeta
“Dead Man’s Cell Phone”: Erin Kelly Outson and Gary F Barth.
Photo by Victor E. Bvzeta

Show:  Dead Man’s Cell Phone

Company: The Enthusiasts Theatre Company

Venue: The Athenaeum Theatre (Studio 1)

Die Roll: 63 (on a d%)

I have terms for certain types of plays.  I’m not sure that anyone else uses these same terms, but I find them handy.  A meaning-of-life play is often (but not always) written by an early career playwright who wants to produce something profound right out of the gate, without learning the craft, nor having lived enough life to have perspective on it.  A masturbatory play is one which is produced entirely for the edification of those on the stage, rather than for the audience.  A gimmick play is something that happens when a playwright basically says “what if…” and writes a play that hinges on a single quirky concept.  I have other terms that I use similarly, but these three are most appropriate to this play.

“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” was penned by Sarah Ruhl, whose plays “Eurydice” and “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)” have become stand-outs, if not classics.  Ms. Ruhl has received the “Genius” award that is also known as the MacArthur Fellowship.  She’s no slouch when it comes to playwriting.  However, not everything that a supposed genius cranks out can be brilliant.  I suppose the sentence immediately previous to this one may not be entirely true.  Someone might be capable of cranking out nothing but epic masterpieces, however, I’ve yet to see evidence thereof.  Even Shakespeare wrote some duds.

And so it is that we confront one of Ruhl’s lesser works.  “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is a gimmick play that is pretending to look at the bigger questions with regards to the meaning of life.  But, basically at its core the play is the result of a gimmick that could possibly fuel a very funny 10-minute play.  The memory of a person’s life is tied to their still-active cell phone.  That’s it.

Toma Tavares Langston is a director who I’ve come to admire over the last couple of years.  I’ve seen his work twice before this play.  He effectively takes poignant and powerful pieces with problems (clunky script, super-low budgets, etc) and brings forth the acting and character work in a way that makes the plays better than their initial potential.  I first saw his work with “The Shadow Box” at Rebekah Theatre Project, and I was so impressed that I asked him to direct a piece in my own company’s “Master Works: The Van Gogh Plays”.  So, I had been looking forward to seeing what Toma did with this play for his own newly founded theatre company.

Not unlike those earlier works, Langston tackled a script that leaves something to be desired.  I really do like the idea behind the play.  It has potential to deal with issues such as grieving, the kindness that can be found in dishonesty, the crisis of faith when one’s illusions are crushed.  But, much of the character development within the script itself is surface level at best.  The little vignettes ring hollow and are often vapid.  And so it is that I find myself wondering why this play was chosen as the inaugural work for a new theatre.  When working for others, it is often true that you have to work within their budget constraints and with a script that was chosen for you.  Yet, if you are able to choose the play itself and have control over the other parts of the production, why not choose a play that isn’t riddled with inherent difficulties?

I suppose I should talk plot for a moment, in order to make clear what is wrong with this play.  The story starts off when Jean (played by Erin Kelly Outson) sits at a table in a cafe near a man whose cell phone won’t stop ringing.  He’s the titular dead man (Gary F. Barth), and his current condition precludes him from being able to answer the phone.  So, Jean does.  In doing so, she commits to answering the phone from then on, and giving those who call for Gordon (the dead man) a modicum of relief in their grieving process.  Little does she know that many in Gordon’s life don’t really grieve his death.  His mother (Nancy Greco) might at some level, although very selfishly.  His brother (Arne Saupe) certainly doesn’t miss him.  Gordon’s ex-wife (Shelley Nixon) is glad to be rid of him.  And his former mistress (Katherine Bellantone) is really only around for potential profit.

In order to participate in her own scheme of assisted healing, Jean launches herself down a path of telling lie after lie about Gordon’s final minutes.  If things had gone as she relates them to all the others, Gordon would have apparently spent the entire duration of his brief heart attack spewing forth apologies to wronged lovers and waxing poetic about family relations.  A trail of lies so long, and so unbelievable, would be a great foundation upon which to build a classic farce.  However, in this play the lies are merely laid out one after another, rather than escalating in order to cover up former lies.  Hilarity does not ensue.

There are moments in which the fourth wall is broken.  Asides are made by the actors commenting on the technical failings of the venue (lights ghosting and shorting out).  A fight sequence includes a gratuitous bit of mugging to the audience.  Outson’s character was never believable.  And when I say never, I mean from her first line when she was expressing irritation at a stranger who doesn’t have the decency to at least turn the ringer down on his cell phone.  From that line onward, I didn’t believe a thing coming out of her mouth.  And, since she is almost always on stage, that means that every other actor’s interactions started at with a handicap.

Barth had a pretty solid monologue in the second act which shone more brightly than the rest of the play.  Saupe’s oddball character (Gordon’s brother), who is instantly in love with Jean,  is one of the more endearing pieces of the play.  Nixon’s portrayal of a drunk, jilted widow was convincing enough that my daughter commented afterward that she truly seemed drunk.

There were some good performances by some good actors (mentioned in the paragraph immediately prior to this one).  On the whole, though, the quality level of the acting undulates like the older wooden roller coasters at Six Flags: a strong moment or two followed by a prolonged, jerky descent.

Two quick things before I’m done:  1) You may remember a recent entry in this column which referred to badly behaved audience members, as well as badly behaved critics.  I found it intriguing that I was sitting behind a woman who was texting throughout the play (a play which comments on the absurd pervasiveness of cell phones in our lives), only to discover during the post-show speech that she was part of the production team.  2) Despite my take on this specific production, I really look forward to seeing what’s next from this company.  Toma is a good director.  Arne is a good character actor and one of my favorite people to share a stage with.  One of my co-writers on this blog is also part of The Enthuiasts’ artistic ensemble.  They’re good artists who chose the wrong play to start their adventure.  I’m sure they’ll rebound, though.  So, don’t hold this against them.


TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Sometimes bad plays happen to good people.  Case in point.

RATING: d6  – “Has Some Merit”