Monday, May 11, 2009

"Dead Man's Cell Phone": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG BANG

She is eating that last bowl of Lobster Bisque, the one he woke up hungry for, but by the time Gordon (Bill English) got to the cafe they had run out, and Jean (Amy Resnick) is slurping her last slurp. She sits in her chair on one side of the spooky cafe, trying to read her book while finishing her meal, except that Gordon's cell phone keeps ringing on the other side of the stage and he's not answering.

Gordon's back is turned to us, but since the title of Sarah Ruhl's hysterical new play is "Dead Man's Cell Phone," we've got a pretty good idea why he isn't picking up. After many rings, Jean wanders across the room, realizes Gordon is dead, and then...answers his phone. What happens for the next act and a half is not at all what anyone is expecting.

Gordon's family thinks Jean knew him well, since she was with him when he died, more or less. Jean discovers she can tell them whatever they want to hear. So she reassures Gordon's always-complaining widow Hermia (Rachel Klyce) that Gordon's last words were of her. Jean tells Gordon's fabulously self-absorbed mother (Joan Mankin) that Gordon loved her like life itself. The stories are hysterical because they are so clearly bald-faced lies, but as one fantasy after another spins out of Jean's mouth we can see how happy she is to have the opportunity to tell them. And Gordon's family is only too pleased to hear all the nice things about them that Jean has made up.

Amy Resnick (seen above with the fabulous Florentina Mocanu) plays Jean for wonderful comic effect, but really this is a profound realization about herself that Jean has uncovered. We wish we knew a little more about her past, so we could watch her grow with her newly-discovered power, especially in Act Two which veers into magical realism. With a little more information, Jean's flirtation with the nebbishy Dwight (Jackson Davis), Gordon's brother, might hit home a little harder.

But maybe it's not supposed to. While on one hand it's a shame the author did not give director Susi Damilano a little more meat to exploit in Jean's character, it's also true that the temporary nature of modern human relations is what fascinates Ruhl here, with the cell phone its evil symbol.

Damilano's direction is strong and the production moves along without a dull moment. It's a family affair because not only does her husband Bill English play a marvelous dead man, but he also is artistic director and designed an intriguing set. Kurt Landisman's lights help give the production a noirish sheen from start to finish.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards 'Dead Man's Cell Phone' Four Stars for Act One and Three for Act Two, which adds up to Three Stars with Two BANGLES of Praise. One BANGLE is for Emma Mankin's portrait of her mother which hangs so perfectly over the dining table in Act One and the other is for the dyspeptic sound of Mankin's tears, from offstage, at the end of Act One. "Mother is crying," says Dwight. You could have fooled us. It's a priceless moment.

"Dead Man's Cell Phone"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through June 13

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