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

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.

April 22, 2008 | 3 Comments More

Sunday Night Sondheim – Disney version

First off – obviously someone has too much time on their hands…  🙂   Nonetheless, this is a cute bit of editing of “On the Steps of the Palace” from Sondheim’s Into The Woods, which uses images from Disney’s “Cinderella” to match up with the lyrics.  Take a peek….

April 13, 2008 | 0 Comments More

“Picked Up” at the Neo-Futurists

What: The Neo-Futurists’ Picked Up, opening Saturday, April 12th at the Neo-Futurarium, 5153. Ashland.

Teaser: Dean Evans, Jay Torrence and Ryan Walters lead a team of skilled comedy writers in creating a series of six never-before-seen television pilots performed live onstage.  A new pilot premieres each week, with audience reactions determining the winner. 

Michael Govier as Bed Pan, Brendan Donaldson as Tea Bag, Briggs Hatton as Woody, and Leah Urzendowski as Sheila, taken by Ryan Ward Thompson

Michael Govier as Bed Pan, Brendan Donaldson as Tea Bag, Briggs Hatton as Woody, and Leah Urzendowski as Sheila

Michael Govier as Bed Pan, taken by Ryan Ward Thompson

Michael Govier as Bed Pan

Ryan Walters, Laura McKenzie, Dean Evans and Jay Torrence, taken by Andrew Collings

 Ryan Walters, Laura McKenzie, Dean Evans and Jay Torrence

April 12, 2008 | 0 Comments More

TimeLine Theatre raises $60k

TimeLine Theatre Company celebrated the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the career of legendary Broadway lyricist Sheldon Harnick with “Step Into Time: The White City” on Saturday evening, March 29, 2008, in the process raising nearly $60,000 in net proceeds to benefit the company. The event, held at Preston Bradley Hall in the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington Street, was attended by nearly 300 supporters and friends of TimeLine.

“We celebrated in style with a truly memorable night,” said TimeLine Artistic Director PJ Powers. “This was the largest event we’ve ever undertaken, and it was breathtaking to see it all come together. We were honored and humbled to have Sheldon Harnick there and to see and feel the enthusiasm in the room from our supporters.”  To see the Columbian-Exposition-stylized program book, go here.

timeline_logoemail.jpg

April 2, 2008 | 0 Comments More

“Food Court Musical” – Sondheim’s current project!

Okay, I’m not sure whether or not it’s Sondheim’s current project, but it certainly sounds like something he’d write…  🙂  Either way, this is a really fun video.  I especially like the staging with the food court trays.  Didn’s they do this in “Grease”????  

March 30, 2008 | 0 Comments More

Review – “Talking It Over” at Lifeline Theatre

Talking It Over - WeddingTalking It Over

 Producers: Lifeline Theatre (map) 
 Set-Up: When steady Stuart (John Ferrick) marries the enigmatic Gillian (Elise Kauzlaric), his impetuous school chum Oliver (Christopher Hainsworth) senses that three has become a crowd.  But who will end up on the outside, as this love triangle struggles to find balance?
 Pros: The performances, save for Ferrick’s overdone drunkenness, are commendable.  The characters themselves are rather grating, which makes them even harder to pull off, and the cast overcomes this obstacle.  Nice sets and staging.
Cons: As mentioned earlier, the characters in this play are difficult to stomach. This has nothing to do with whether they’re “good” people or not – you can have a villain that is a joy to watch because they have something that they truly believe in, and have a reason for choosing what they do – and then they go for it.  But these characters. save for Stuart’s best friend Val (Katie McLean), are whiny, clothed in layers of victimhood – but unfortunately lack targeted purpose.
Technicals: The set, designed by Andre LaSalle, works well.  Consisting of three raised stages, LaSalle has placed layers of large paintings-in-progress behind each of the stage areas; the respective paintings torn down to match the scene.  This works well, especially as the character of Gillian is a painting restorer.  Lighting (Fullilove-Nugent) and Sound Design (Fiksel) fit nicely into the show. 
Environment: Lifeline Theatre maintains a pleasant lobby and facilities, and the personnel are warm and helpful. The theatre space itself is nice-sized, perfect for more intimate works.  The neighborhood wrapping around the theatre may seem a bit iffy, but don’t let that assuage you – Rogers Park is a quickly-gentrifying neighborhood, and Lifeline is certainly one of the stalwarts of this transformation. (Directions to the theatre can be found on Lifeline’s website.  I suggest taking the el, as the theatre is less than a block away from the Morse red-line el stop)
Summary: Talking It Over has a number of things going for it – including nice staging and decent performances from the majority of the cast.  Unfortunately, these positives are overshadowed by the underlying idea that we just don’t care about the trio’s separate stories.  There’s a clever analogy inserted into a scene where Gillian explains – as she is restoring a painting – the thrill she gets when she uncovers objects in the painting that have been obscured over years of painting wear-and-tear.  An analogy can be projected that we are seeing the same thing happen with the characters, that parts of their personalities and inner struggles are uncovered through their conversations with us.  Unfortunately this done not happen. 

Rating: ««

Other Reviews: Timeout ChicagoTribune, TheatreInChicago.com  

Personnel and Show Times

Adaptor: Peter Greenberg
Director: Dorothy Milne
Sets: Andre LaSalle
Lights: Maggie Fullilove-Nugent
Costumes: Branimira Ivanova
Sound Design: Mikhail Fiksel
Dialect Coach: Phil Timberlake
Stage Manager: Ellen Willett
Featuring: Elise Kauzlaric (Gillian)
Katie McLean (Val and others)
John Ferrick  (Stuart)
Christopher Hainsworth (Oliver)
Ann Wakefield (Madame Wyatt and others)
Location: Lifeline Theatre  6912 N. Glenwood Ave. (map)
Dates: Through March 23rd
Show Times: Fridays – 7:30pm; Saturdays – 4pm and 8pm; Sundays – 4pm

Talking It Over 5

Talking It Over 9

Talking It Over 6

March 16, 2008 | 0 Comments More

It’s a black (casting) thing

In 2004, the Goodman Theatre presented an amazing all-black cast production of “Proof”.  Looks like Broadway is finally playing catch-up, including an all-black “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”.  Hey Broadway – get with it!

March 16, 2008 | 0 Comments More

Gus Giordano – father of jazz dance – dies at 85

Gus Giordano 1When leafing through the Chicago Tribune this morning, I was surprised to read about the death of Gus Giordano, the father of jazz dance, at the defiant age of 85.  I had direct contact with Gus back in the 80’s, when I was music-directing for Northwestern University’s Waa-Mu show.  Each year, Gus was always the choreographer, and I was always impressed in how well he was able to work with the Waa-Mu cast.  And he was always a warm and good-natured guy.  I’m very sorry to see that he has passed away, but he definitely has left a cultural mark, his jazz-dance style being incorporated into everything from musical theatre to music videos.  Bravo!

The Chicago Tribune has a fitting obit online.

March 11, 2008 | 2 Comments More