Outskirts’ ‘dead man’s cellphone’ rings true, in part
By Marilyn Jozwik
Published Sept. 3, 2019
“Dead Man’s Cellphone,” by Sarah Ruhl, being presented by Outskirts Productions, covers a lot of thematic territory as it tells the story of a young woman who picks up a dead man’s cellphone at a café. There is commentary on the digital age, on death and dying, relationships, family dynamics and more.
Director Dylan Sladky keeps his finely tuned cast capturing the comedy and cynicism in a variety of situations that are thought provoking, if a bit wacky and bizarre.
Jean (Brittany Boeche) is the young woman who picks up the phone of Gordon (Seth K Hale), who has died and is still sitting at his seat at the cafe. Even though she doesn’t know any of the callers to Gordon’s phone, or anything about him, she says things she thinks the callers would want to hear. She begins to piece together Gordon’s life and meets his mother, wife, and brother, whom she falls for. She clings to his cell phone like it is his life. “As long as people called him, he would be alive,” she says.
A love/hate relationship of devices plays out through the show with feelings ranging from desperate dependence to fear and loathing. “When something rings, you have to answer it,” says Jean, while Gordon’s mother scorns the mourners’ phones at his funeral, calling them “something ringing in their pants.”
An interesting dynamic is Jean’s affection for Gordon’s brother, Dwight (Nate Press), who works in a stationery shop. The two discuss paper and its tactile and visual qualities in a sensual way that brings them closer together. Both lonely souls, Dwight and Jean seem to have found their mates in a beautifully performed scene.
The sounds of cell phones ringing and visuals of pages of paper strewn about happen often in the show, creating a contrast of communication.
The first act actually has some semblance of plausibility with outstanding performances, starting with Boeche as Jean, who is so sweet and sincere as she navigates Gordon’s eccentric family. Boeche helps create scenes that are touching, keeping a sense of reality as the other characters seem to be retreating from it.
Deborah Oettinger is wonderful as Gordon’s mother, perhaps the most complicated character as she muses on the life and death of her favorite son. Oettinger is stoic in her grief – somewhat remindful of Mary Tyler Moore in the movie “Ordinary People” -- treading territory that is unfamiliar. When Jean asks why she was calling Gordon at the café, she says, “I call Gordon when I’m stopped at a traffic light. It’s habit.” She muses how when an older person dies, the grief lessens day by day. But when a younger person, it’s the opposite. “It’s like grieving in reverse.”
Oettinger is expert at getting the most out of a line with just the right pauses, speed, volume, varying them like a chef sprinkling herbs and spices on each dish to great effect. I love how she described Jean, carefully crafting Playwright Ruhl’s often poetic, often quirky dialogue. “You’re very comforting. I don’t know why. You’re like a small casserole.”
I would have liked to see where Oettinger’s character – and others -- go in Act 2, but they’re sabotaged by the show’s detour into a fantasy. It turns into a sort of clumsy other world comedy as Gordon explains in great detail what happened the day he died – down to the annoying habits of his wife (Kimberly Giddens) and the lobster bisque he was lusting for at the cafe. As Gordon, Hale is arrogant, entitled and rather despicable. Hale creates a character that was much more likeable when we knew little about him. From there, the show takes off into curious directions, including Jean’s landing in another continent, caught in the middle of Gordon’s nefarious business. In another odd – though well-performed – scene, Jean is beaten up by Gordon’s mistress (Liz Ehrler).
The show is wonderfully staged in the comfortable and airy space at Danceworks Studios. Frankie Steitz’s set design and Shane O’Neil’s lighting create the right mood with minimal, easily moved pieces that keep scenes quietly advancing at a good clip. Samantha Paige has created a couple of nicely choreographed scenes with all the characters.
If you go:
Who: Outskirts Theatre Co.
What: “Dead Man’s Cellphone”
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7; 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 8
Where: Danceworks Studios, 1661 N. Water St., Milwaukee