Dead Man’s Cell Phone at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre

Theatre review

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From left: Amanda Webb (Stranger) and Latonya Kitchen (Jean) in Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone

Photo by Michael Hardy Photography

Mobile devices are a blessing and a curse. Dead Man’s Cell Phone, written by Sarah Ruhl and continuing at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre through July 8, explores the extent to which one cellphone belonging to a newly deceased man can both connect and confound. While the play offers some pertinent phone philosophy, it is more of a quirky, existential contemplation of how we can reach out and touch someone, not just in life but also after death.
In the first act, Jean (Latonya Kitchen) intervenes when a man at the café table near hers doesn’t answer his incessantly ringing cellphone. Upon realizing he is dead, Jean takes it upon herself to answer every call his phone subsequently receives. She eventually meets his mysterious mistress (Amanda Webb), as well as privileged mother (Marlene Galan-Woods), widow Hermia (Michelle Pedersen) and younger brother Dwight (Cody Aaron Hanify), with whom she develops a relationship.
Once the characters and situation are established, the second act gets more playful and metaphysical, beginning with the dead Gordon (David Vaillancourt) reappearing from the afterlife to recall for the audience his last day on earth. Meanwhile, Hermia the widow drunkenly discusses her sex life with Jean in an over-the-top, explicit manner. Jean then gets more involved with Gordon’s nefarious business, soon meeting a strange James Bond-type, gun-toting woman in South Africa (Webb), and fighting with her Karate Kid-style in strobe-enhanced slow motion.
Adding to this quirkiness are four women in black with umbrellas who appear between scenes like theatre elves, flitting about the stage in movements well choreographed by Shannon Dodson to different types of music. This diverting mishmash of genres keeps things interesting and idiosyncratic in a play that encompasses the comedic and serious, sometimes falling flatly in between.
All the actors are emotive and very competent in their roles, sustaining this somewhat cerebral and didactic play. Hanify as Dwight seems to be the most himself, with realistic pacing in his delivery. Chemistry between Dwight and Jean is also believably sweet. Though all the actors are similarly strong, Pedersen as Hermia steals every scene she’s in, pitch-perfect as the rich widow who has to confront her own life in the vacuum of her husband’s death.
Imagistic stage design (Greg Fritsche) evokes the world of the cellphone with side panels of microchip imagery, alongside white clouds and blue sky suggestive of life and the afterlife. Semi-transparent screens in between are backlit to create exaggerated silhouettes of the actors for interesting effect.
Director Kathy Paladino notes that Ruhl’s play questions our use of technology, asking the essential question, “Has it created an artificial sense of belonging to something that doesn’t really exist?” Jean seems to create that illusion for herself, succumbing to its delusions while simultaneously making real connections.
The play is a bit wordy about cellphones and can make you self-conscious about talking on your device in public, which is probably a good thing. But there’s conceptual depth here, too. While you may not use your phone the same way after seeing this play, you may not think about death the same way either.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., through July 8, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $20-$24. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 494-1014 or visit www.lbplayhouse.org.

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