Dead Man’s Cell Phone

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

10/04/2010 - 08/05/2010

Production Details

A captivating romantic comedy.  
The latest new play from American playwrighting sensation, Sarah Ruhl (The Clean House), this delightfully quirky comedy follows the adventures of one woman’s accidental quest to make a few people feel just a little bit better about themselves.
The New Zealand première of DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE opens in CIRCA One on Saturday 10th April at 8pm
An incessantly ringing cell phone in a quiet cafe.
A stranger at the next table who has had enough.
And a dead man – with a lot of loose ends….
So begins Dead Man’s Cell Phone – a highly imaginative voyage of discovery with wonderfully surprising and theatrical twists.
Jean is sleepwalking through her life until she answers that ringing cell phone. It turns out to be a wake-up call that sends her on a date with the dead man’s brother, a drinking binge with his wife, and a mysterious rendez-vous with his mistress. Not to mention trips to the afterlife and the black market. In this beguiling modern adventure, Jean re-connects to her own spirit and learns that life is for the living.
Sarah Ruhl is one of the hottest and most acclaimed young writers working in the theatre today. She has received numerous honours. The Clean House, won the 2004 Susan Smith Blackburn Award, given to outstanding female playwrights, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. In 2006, she was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (nicknamed the “genius grant”), a $500,000 award given to individuals who “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.” Celebrated for its distinctive aura of magic and whimsy, its transformation of space, time, and atmosphere, her work has been hailed by Charles Isherwood of the New York Times as “devastatingly lovely—and just plain devastating.”
Ruhl’s world is a moving and magical place where even the smallest things can be charged with unexpected meaning. And Dead Man’s Cell Phone is her most popular play yet. It’s funny, charming, beautiful and uplifting – the perfect night out for these longer autumn evenings!
 “Ruhl is an extraordinary writer and her brilliance rings through Dead Man’s Cell Phone” – San Francisco Chronicle
“Satire is her oxygen. . . . forever vital in her lyrical and biting takes on how we behave.”—The Washington Post
“Sarah Ruhl is deliriously imaginative and fearless. She is an original.”– Arena Stage
“Ruhl’s writing is so surreal and spare, so full of wonder, and truth. The woman is magic. And such intelligent magic at that.” – Tina Howe (playwright)
Dead Man’s Cell Phone
Circa One
10th APRIL – 8th MAY
1 Taranaki Street, Wellington          
$20 SPECIALS – Friday 9th April – 8pm, Sunday 11th April – 4pm.
AFTER SHOW FORUM – Tuesday 20th April
Performance times:
Tuesday & Wednesday – 6.30pm
Thursday, Friday, Saturday – 8pm
Sunday – 4pm
Ticket Prices:
Adults – $38; Concessions – $30;
Friends of Circa – $28
Under 25s – $20;
Groups 6+ – $32
Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki Street, Wellington
Phone 801 7992;  

A woman, Jean: MEL DODGE
Gordon’s mother, Mrs Gottlieb: DONNA AKERSTEN
Gordon’s widow, Hermia: RACHEL MORE
Gordon’s brother, Dwight: GAVIN RUTHERFORD
The other woman/The stranger: JESSICA ROBINSON

Lighting:  ULLI BRIESE
Costumes:  PAUL JENDEN

Stage Manager: Eric Gardiner
Technical Operator: Isaac Heron
Choreography: Paul Jenden
Fight Arrangement: Allan Henry
Dialect Coach: D’Arcy Smith
Assistant SM:  Dana Nearey (by arrangement with NZ College of Performing Arts)
Publicity: Claire Treloar
Graphic Design: Rose Miller, Parlour
Photography: Stephen A’Court
House Manager: Suzanne Blackburn, Branwen Millar
Box Office Manager: Linda Wilson
Music used in this production by Philip Glass 

A Ruhl unto herself?

Review by John Smythe 11th Apr 2010

Given Sarah Ruhl is a fabulist playwright, we are invited to relish her departures from prosaic reality and seek the fable in each story she conjures up from her fertile imagination and enquiring mind. She writes great roles for actors, too, which ensures a lively ride en route, providing the play is well cast.

Circa Theatre director Susan Wilson introduced us to Ruhl last year with The Clean House, where the titular state and how it is achieved is contrasted with states of love, the insoluble issue of cancer and our capacity to laugh at things we don’t understand. Its purpose as a fable, I concluded, was to reveal the efficacy in a lightness of being.

The premise for Dead Man’s Cellphone is also in the title, which means it won’t be a spoiler to sketch in the opening scene. An evocation of rain – dark figures scuttling under black umbrellas, pausing only to consult their cellphones – gives way to two café tables. At one a woman – Jean – is writing notes on a pad. At the other a man sits motionless, his back to us. His cellphone rings. He doesn’t answer it … She becomes irritated … When, eventually, she realises why and answers it herself, Jean becomes embroiled in the life he has left behind yet still inhabits via his cellphone message and those in communication (or not) with him.

Wilson has, as usual, assembled an ideal cast to play out the intrigues, on John Hodgkins’ beautifully simple sliding panel set superbly lit by Ulli Briese with a brilliant sound design from Thomas Press, in excellent costumes by Paul Jenden who has also choreographed the scene-changing interludes.

Without a backstory to get her there (all we discover is she works in the office of the Holocaust Museum), Mel Dodge gives us a slightly mousey Jean whose life is apparently so empty she is happy to fill it with Gordon’s, as she discovers his name to be.

She also feels compelled to lie to his mother, wife, lover and brother about his feelings for them, without any negative repercussions. Her lies have positive effects on them. Perhaps her job has made her aware of so much bad stuff in human history, she feels entitled to realign these primal relationships.

Of course she might not have done that had she known upfront what he did for a living, which I won’t reveal here as we are made to want to know long before it is revealed. Suffice to say the digitised and atmospheric realms of existence experienced on the cellphone plane are contrasted with something much more physical, organic and morally dodgy.

Gordon’s mother, Harriet Gottlieb, presides over a Catholic funeral he somehow gets without anyone in the family ‘practising’. Donna Akerston brings her excellent comedic sensibility to the tragedy of a mother who has alienated herself from those she loves most, investing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ with a ghastly poignancy.  

Jean’s sense of worth as a woman is given a jolt when she meets with Gordon’s lover, named only as “the other woman” in the programme and beautifully played as a French femme fatale by Jessica Robinson (except later she turns out to be Carlotta – and South American? – although authenticity is not this character’s strong point).

Perhaps the most complex ‘supporting role’ is that of Gordon’s widow, Hermia, played with exquisite attention to detail by Rachel More. Only at the end do we discover the vocation that was curtailed by her marriage to Gordon. Meanwhile her strict sense of social manners, her subservience to Harriet and her ambivalent relationship with her brother-in-law Dwight give way to an acerbic, cocktail-lubricated stripping of pretensions in one of the best drunk scenes I have ever seen.

As the number two son Dwight, who works in a stationer’s shop, Gavin Rutherford also reveals a great deal in his non-verbal actions. Perfectly pitched, his ‘soft toy’ vulnerability and sensuous appreciation of paper makes him ideally suited, it seems, to the likewise timid and gentle Jean, until his fear-based controlling side emerges, provoking her sudden transition into a gung-ho adventurer.  

Just as The Clean House took a sudden leap to Alaska, Dead Man’s Cellphone transports us to Johannesburg Airport, not to mention another planet, before finding its way back to some sort of equilibrium.

The dead Gordon is superbly rendered by Christopher Brougham and – once we have all had our perceptions tinged in the rosy glow of Jean’s embellishments – he reveals his true self with great dramatic impact.

The play’s characters, insights into modern life, and sudden jabs of wit and abstract theatricality make for much delight. It will be a matter of taste, then, as to whether we mind so many of its threads remaining unbraided.

Having been enthralled enough to give Ruhl the benefit of quite a few doubts with The Clean House, I find myself less willing to indulge Dead Man’s Cellphone. There seem to be some lazy tricks for getting out of dramaturgical fixes, like deciding there’s nobody working at the café to sidestep the obvious action of calling for help from the management, without endowing it with any allegorical meaning.

There is clearly a theme about different realities, as in: the Gordon Jean creates versus the Gordon he really is; the Other Woman’s strategies for success as a woman and her turning out to be something else again; Hermia’s strategies for copulating satisfactorily with Gordon before his death allows her to reclaim what may or may not be her true self; Jean’s excursion to another planet before opting for Dwight (Mr not-quite-Right?) despite certain warning signs …  

Then there are questions that arise from specific choices Ruhl has made, like Jean working in the office of the Holocaust Museum, Gordon’s family name being Gottlieb (love of God) even though he has a Catholic funeral, and the revelations regarding Gordan’s morally repugnant occupation.

Are we to believe Ruhl means these ingredients to come together in a way that gives the play the right to be called a fable? If so, where is the “get it” moment that delivers the moral? Or do we just smile and shrug and say, “Ruhl works in mysterious ways”?

If she wants us to share in a coherent vision of our incoherent world, she has yet to find the alchemy for distilling her idiosyncratic mixture of components and forms into a cohesive whole that becomes more than the sum of its parts.

If all she wants is to play about with random wacky ideas to stimulate our appetites without delivery anything of substance, then she’s just a Ruhl unto herself whose entertaining antics may or may not leave you satisfied.

Either way this very well produced and directed Circa production offers much to enjoy at the time and lots to think about afterwards.
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