With her curious dark comedy Dead Man’s Cell Phone, playwright Sarah Ruhl begins with a premise that is promising enough. Also promising is the excellent casting of the five actors who comprise International City Theatre’s roster for the production.
In Dead Man’s Cell Phone, a young woman, Jean (Alina Phelan), sits alone at a table in a neighborhood café. A nearby table is occupied by a young man, Gordon (Trent Dawson), whose cell phone rings incessantly as it goes unanswered. Becoming mildly annoyed, Jean approaches Gordon to ask him if he intends to answer his phone. After a few moments in which she receives no response, Jean realizes that Gordon is dead.
The remainder of the first act has Jean involving herself with Gordon’s loved ones as she fancies herself the custodian of his rather active cell phone. In answering the frequent incoming calls, she is drawn into meetings with Gordon’s emotionally abandoned wife (Susan Diol), his sultry mistress (Heather Roberts), his prickly mother (Eileen T’Kaye), and his mousy brother (a role also played by Dawson), all of whom desire some sort of consolation or completion from the only person who was with Gordon when he died.
Causing great irritation to the manipulation-averse among us, Jean makes up a plethora of lies describing everything from her non-existent professional relationship with Gordon, whom of course she has never met, to the final words he spoke about each of the loved ones, in an apparent effort to comfort them.
Intermission arrives, and it’s pretty much so far so good, primarily because Phelan’s Jean is such a remarkably likable character.
Act II begins with the play’s most entertaining scene. Gordon, occupying some sort of purgatory on his way to the underworld, treats us to more than a glimpse of his colorful life as a doted-on son, an accomplished black-market peddler of human organs, and a generally licentious wheeler-dealer.
Ruhl’s dialogue really takes off here with Dawson’s thoroughly amusing and outrageously protracted description of his final meal, in which he’d settled for lentil soup just as the café had sold its last bowl of the lobster bisque he’d craved.
Unfortunately, Ruhl’s script takes a wrong turn at this point, entering the theater of the absurd, never to find its way back again. A story that should have continued in its exploration into the depths of psychological wonder and possibility, instead tumbles pell mell into a cartoonish world of utter nonsense.
Jean’s considerable naïveté notwithstanding, events that follow are simply not to be believed. A call to Gordon’s phone has her flying off to South Africa and a deadly attempt to close one of Gordon’s organ deals? Really?! And once she meets her maker, she and Gordon engage in their first conversation, which bears on superficialities rather than substance.
It is all staged on a peculiar set consisting of nothing more than a backdrop of narrow black and white panels depicting architectural photos. Jazzy music, though interesting, also seems to bear no connection to the play’s action.
In the end, Ruhl squanders the opportunity she purposefully created. Where an in-depth study of human motivations should have evolved, instead we wound up dissatisfied recipients of meaningless drivel. A shame.
Richard Israel directs the capable cast, which might have spent the evening better occupied.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone continues at International City Theatre through June 30. Tickets are $45 for Friday and Saturday evening performances and for Sunday matinees; $38 for Thursday evening performances. Evening performances are at 8pm; Sunday matinees are at 2pm. ICT is located in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center at 300 East Ocean Blvd. Call (562) 436-4610 for reservations and information. Tickets are also available online at InternationalCityTheatre.com .