Review: “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” at Steppenwolf

| April 22, 2008 | 3 Comments

Jean is a rather dull, introverted woman.  She spends her free-time reading at coffeehouses whilst the world hums and haws around her.  One day, however, while engrossed in a book, a man next to her refuses to answer his cellphone.  After repeatedly admonishing the man to answer his phone, Jean ventures over to his table, and discovers the stunning reason why the phone was not answered – the man is dead.  As this morbid realization overtakes her, the cellphone again begins to ring; Jean answers it.  So starts the beginning of Jean’s madcap, surreal and at times frustrating journey as created and presented by playwright Sarah Ruhl and Steppenwolf Theatre’s associate director Jessica Thebus – a journey that steamrolls Jean from a dinner with the family of the dead guy (Gordon), a tryst with Gordon’s brother Dwight, separate outings with Gordon’s wife and mistress, a zany afterlife detour, and culminating with a tumultuous South African rendezvous with underworld dealers of body-organ smuggling.  Whew!

There is a lot to love in Dead Man’s Cell Phone.  Above all, it’s a fun and unpredictable.  There are times where Thebus has masterfully created truly refreshing and whimsical stage pictures – the most memorable for me being a scene involving Jean and Dwight: as the two lust-birds go at it in Dwight’s stationary store, glowing paper houses appear in the background, and sheets of stationary flutter and weave down from the ceiling.  Why is this happening?  I don’t fully know, but it sure is amusing.  Ruhl’s skillful writing shines most in her coupled dialogues, especially the hilarious interchange with Jean and Gordon’s widow Hermia over cocktails.  Though all of Dean Man’s technical aspects mirror Steppenwolf’s usual mastery, the lighting outdoes itself.  Lighting designer James Ingalls’ use of illumination to showcase the story is especially evident in his glowing houses (see above) and umbrellas and body parts (see pictures below). 

I have a few misgivings with this production.  Most pertinently, the role of Jean (Polly Noonan) seems to be miscast and a bit misdirected.  Jeans presents herself as a single, twenty-something woman, naively zoned-out, part airhead and part manipulator.  But according to the script she’s actually well into her 30′s, which is not how Jean looks or appears.  Adding to this, we’re denied an ending that matches the quirkiness and magic of the rest of the play, which is unfortunate.

Summary: Dead Man’s Cell Phone, despite a few misdials, is an offbeat, boisterous production that lends itself well to Steppenwolf’s usual topnotch output.  Recommended.

Rating: «««

Production: Dean Man’s Cell Phone
Playwright: Sarah Ruhl
Director: Jessica Thebus
Featuring: Molly Regan (Mrs Gottlieb), Sarah Charipar (Other Woman, Stranger), Geraldine Dulex (Ensemble), Marc Grapey (Gordon), Coburn Goss (Dwight), Mary Beth Fisher (Hermia), Polly Noonan (Jean), Ben Whiting (Ensemble) and Marilyn Dodds Frank (Mrs Gottlieb after June 1).
Design Team: Scott Bradley (Scenery), Linda Roethke (Costumes), James F. Ingalls (Lighting), Andre Pluess (Sound and Original Music), Ann Boyd (Choreography) Joe Dempsey (Fight Choreography),
Technical Team: Christine D. Freeburg (Stage Manager), Michelle Medvin (Asst. Stage Manager)
More Info: www.steppenwolf.org

Polly Noonan (left) and Marc Grapey (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Polly Noonan (left) and Marc Grapey (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008. 

Coburn Goss (left) and Polly Noonan (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Coburn Goss (left) and Polly Noonan (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone

Polly Noonan in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Jean (Polly Noonan) answers the dreaded cellphone

(left to right) Coburn Goss, Mary Beth Fisher, Polly Noonan and ensemble member Molly Regan  in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008. 

Dinner at the Gotlieb’s with (left to right) Coburn Goss, Mary Beth Fisher, Polly Noonan and ensemble member Molly Regan.

– Marc Grapey in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Marc Grapey as the Dead Man.

Polly Noonan in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008. 

Polly Noonan (Jean) with glowing umbrellas. 

Ensemble member Molly Regan in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Mrs. Gotlieb (ensemble member Molly Regan) speaks at funeral. 

Polly Noonan (left) and Mary Beth Fisher (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Happy Hour with Jean (Noonan) and Hermia (Mary Beth Fisher). 

Sarah Charipar (left) and Polly Noonan (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008

The Other Woman (Sarah Charipar) and Jean (Noonan) with glowing kidney.

Polly Noonan and Coburn Goss in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Jean (Noonan and Dwight (Coburn Goss) build a paper house.

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Category: 2008 Reviews, Openings, Steppenwolf

Comments (3)

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  1. JF says:

    We just saw the play and enjoyed it. I agree with much of your review — very amusing it was although I left wondering as did you. Re. Misgivings: I wouldn’t say Jean was presented as twenty-something. Although she does seem youthful, Polly Noonan played in movies mid-eighties. She has to be around age 37 that’s mentioned in the play. Not her attire nor language would suggest the twenties. On the contrary, her extreme politeness, kind-heartedness, and diplomacy seemed old-fashioned. Perhaps the intention was to obscure her age to emphasize a stagnation, an absence of personal growth. That is a process the cell phone initiates for Jean. For me, Mrs. Gotlieb’s potty-mouth language, especially at the funeral service, was entirely wrong and nearly severed the suspension of reality. How likey would it be for a fussy and aristocratic matron to use common and vulgar language in public in a church at her son’s funeral? It was hard for me to conceive. I was bewildered what it added to the story.

    JF

  2. Venus says:

    Very interesting observations but in regards to the ‘potty-mouth’ language from Mrs. Gotlieb, it has been my experience that at funerals all bets are off. Despite the decorum that one would expect, grief can surface in as many ways as there are individuals who are experiencing it and I have heard things come out of people’s mouths that were eye popping. Also, I have heard some fussy and aristocratic matrons get pretty blue. That is some of their secret charm.

    The entire play, although very entertaining, makes some pretty hefty demands on the suspension of disbelief. You either give in and enjoy or stumble through the ridiculousness. My partner found it irritating. I gave in and had fun.

    I like the idea that the cell phone initiates stagnation for Jean. That really sums it up.

    VZ


  3. [...] play) or The Clean House or Dead Man’s Cell Phone (which premiered at Steppenwolf in 2008 – our review ★★★).  So it’s impossible for me to look at LATE through the lens of a Ruhl expert, [...]

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