My Gramps died last year at the ripe old age of 83. He was a fun-loving man with a childlike sense of wonder for computers and contraptions. Every month, Facebook asks me if I want to reconnect with him.
Gramps got an account a year before he passed away. Every time his name pops up on the site, it’s like a kick in the heart. But his page is more than a digital memorial. It’s an eerie kind of afterlife for my gadget-loving Gramps.
In Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Gordon Gottlieb leaves vestiges of his life behind when he dies suddenly in a desolate café. A nosy lady called Jean answers his ringing phone, meets with his weird family, and tries to right the wrongs he committed while he was alive. Along the way she is attracted to Gordon’s brother Dwight. However, since this play is written by Sarah Ruhl who likes to give her work a magical realist touch, Jean might end up in some strange Starbucks purgatory instead of with her newfound love.
Director Keely Enright knows her Mt. Pleasant audience well. She keeps the comedy broad so that some of the play’s more esoteric touches don’t put people off. Rather than being a mousy creature slowly coming out of her shell, the Village Playhouse’s version of Jean is very active — she starts answering Gordon’s phone quickly, speaks loudly, and shares quizzical looks with the audience when she hears something surprising. The other characters are equally overstated: Dwight is amusingly meek, overshadowed by his more powerful brother and browbeaten by his mother. The elder Mrs. Gottlieb is a cross between an aging stage diva and a boorish English aristocrat.
Hermia is Gordon’s wife. She sublimates her fantasies in respect of her husband’s wishes, internalizes her feelings but then shares them with Jean. There’s also a mysterious, impressively feminine Other Woman, who has known Gordon for a long time and wants her share of his legacy. Though dead, Gordon himself is a pivotal character. He even gets a lengthy monologue in the second act.
Angela White plays the heroine, following a trail of phone messages to Gordon’s home and far beyond. Her character’s relationship with Dwight is believable, even though it happens rapidly; as Dwight, Josh Wilhoit is so lovable that we root for him to get the girl. Susan Kattwinkel performs the role of Hermia with the right amount of wifely weariness, and it’s fun to see her get more impulsive as she escapes from Gordon’s shadow. Stacy Rabon is enjoyable to watch as the other woman, particularly in her funny first scene. Dave Reinwald seems a little shaky on a few of his lines, but he’s playing a scatterbrained dead guy, so he gets away with it and accomplishes two hard tasks — convincing the audience to empathize with the obnoxious Gordon, and helping them to understand the quirky plot.
The real star of the show is Samille Basler, who creates a powerhouse version of the demented Mrs. Gottlieb. Aided by Julie Ziff’s outrageous costumes, Basler is angry, mournful, pathetic, and downright scary. She’s a Cruella de Vil for the cell phone set, raging against the machines in our pockets.
The story’s hard to swallow, but Enright and her company bring out the central love story without sacrificing Ruhl’s smart ideas. Gordon’s gone, but his relatives’ love for him grows, partly because of the cell phone he left behind. Mrs. Gottlieb is comforted by the thought that he exists somewhere on hold, waiting for her.