Eugene Weekly : Theater : 8.4.11


All Spark and No Service
Dead Man’s Cell Phone at the Very Little Theatre

One of the most enjoyable themes in theater and film is how much human beings suck. Think Woody Allen flicks. Animal Farm. Anything written by Dennis Leary or on America’s Funniest Home Videos. It’s fun to laugh at ourselves, to see aspects of our own experience within the snark. 

I entered Very Little Theatre’s latest production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone — a strong modern satire about technology and death written by Sarah Ruhl — with this outlook in mind. I was ready to witness the technology-addicted masses portrayed in all their horror. I was ready to laugh at myself and the rest of my Facebooked and Twittered society. 

Dead, however, is genuinely not funny. The play drags, with one attempt at a cheap laugh after another. It’s clear that the dog days of summer are wearing on the actors and even the techs, too. The cast walks and gestures as if they all need a shot of adrenaline. Curse words are dropped listlessly as though uttered by third graders on a playground. There are no moments of believable passion. Worst of all, you can’t tell if the actors intend their performances as reflection, satire or pure kitsch.

Director Patrick Torelle clearly uses the set to illustrate the implications of technology, with electronic projections of street signs and day-glow colors reminiscent of The Jetsons. The play opens with Jean (Sydney Behrends) answering a stranger’s cell phone because it just won’t stop ringing, goddamn it! In truth, Jean is annoyingly polite about answering, especially when she discovers that the sleeping gentleman/inconsiderate asshole not answering his phone has no heartbeat.

The rest of the play consists of Jean embarking on a quest to right the wrongs in the dead Gordon’s life. Oddly, this means lying to everyone she encounters about Gordon’s last moments. There’s no sense of higher justice here. There is no urge to return to pre-technology innocence. Jean is a smiling sociopath, as artificial as her airy blue raincoat. We’re not inspired to sympathize or cheer for her. It’s too cold for comfort.

Dead does have its moments of sincere acting, at times commenting effectively on the paradoxes of modern life. One of my favorite lines concerned the act of mourning in a church versus any other location. The line is delivered by Harriet (Rebecca Natchison), Gordon’s controlling but surprisingly graceful mother: “I could not put all this in a low-ceiling room.” Natchison perfectly encapsulates a desire for ritual and tradition in a virtual world. If only the rest of the cast had captured more of this struggle between new and old, the plays’ themes might have been more compelling.

Also notably well cast is Sabra Slade as the spoiled but suffering widow Hermia. Steven Gott, in a departure from previous, steamier roles, plays Gordon’s simpering brother Dwight. Bary Shaw, as the Dead Man himself, is way too talented to be playing a stiff. But his awareness of the irony in playing a dead character gives the second act its limited spark.

There are no heroes in Dead Man’s Cell Phone, despite its attempts to be a morality play. Poor Dwight just wants someone to adore, and perhaps to be nurtured in return. Harriet wants complete control over all the people and events in her life. Hermia seeks validation for her sacrifices.

And Jean? She is never at peace with herself, and tries to validate Gordon’s legacy only to add to her internal tally of good deeds. This production fails to offer any lifelike characters, though their silhouettes should be familiar to anyone who’s ever walked into an Apple store. — Brit McGinnis

Dead Man’s Cell Phone runs through Aug. 13 at the Very Little Theatre; for tickets and info, call 344-7751.


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