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Review: 'Dead Man's Cell Phone' plays the digital age for laughs

June 14, 2013|By F. Kathleen Foley
  • Alina Phelan and Trent Dawson in "Dead Man's Cell Phone" at International City Theatre.
Alina Phelan and Trent Dawson in "Dead Man's Cell Phone"… (Suzanne Mapes )

Playwright Sarah Ruhl is a proven practitioner whose buoyantly surreal plays are moored by cosmically serious themes.

Pulitzer-nominated in 2005, Ruhl’s “The Clean House” exploited a comical situation -- a Latina domestic worker's quest for the perfect joke -- to explore larger issues of death and loss. And in “Eurydice,” recently seen in a stellar production at A Noise Within, Ruhl slanted the Greek myth of Eurydice and Orpheus into a moving story of undying paternal love -- Ruhl’s moving valedictory to her own dead father.

Ruhl’s 2007 play, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” now at the International City Theatre in Long Beach, catches Ruhl in a typically playful mood. Annoyed by an unanswered cellphone in a sleepy cafe, Jean (Alina Phelan) soon realizes that the phone’s owner, Gordon (Trent Dawson), has expired. Fascinated by the dead man, Jean soon insinuates herself into the lives of his friends and family, including Gordon’s dragon lady mother (Eileen T’Kaye), his emotionally icy wife (Susan Diol), his gently lovelorn brother (also played by Dawson), and his steamy mistress (Heather Roberts). 

Jean’s far-fetched efforts to apotheosize Gordon after his death -- and her sad realization that he was in no way the saint she had imagined -- fuel the humor, and indeed there are considerable laughs in Richard Israel’s keenly calibrated staging.  Among the excellent cast, Phelan is particularly fine as an open-hearted naif whose obsession with a man she never knew stands in the way of a real relationship.

But the play’s thematic underpinnings -- somewhat jejune musings about the dehumanization of the digital age -- seem uncharacteristically scant for Ruhl.  And despite the most determined efforts of all involved, the action sometimes segues into the silly, with Ruhl obviously straining for laughs.  In light of Ruhl’s otherwise impressive canon, “Cell Phone” seems surprisingly slight -- a one-note premise that never quite makes the leap into the genuinely outré.

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“Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.  8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays.  Ends June 30.  $38-$45.  (562) 436-4610.  www.InternationalCityTheatre.com.  Running time:  1 hour, 35 minutes.

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