Ballad of a Dead Man

Trinity Rep’s Cell Phone fills in the blanks
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  March 3, 2010

ODD COUPLE Duclos and Donelly. Photo: MARK TUREK

It all starts harmlessly enough. A woman in a nearly empty café, annoyed by a ringing phone ignored by its owner, picks it up and answers. She might as well have flipped open Pandora's Nokia, as Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone unfolds complication after complication at Trinity Repertory Company (through March 28).

The handy device is a shaky metaphor for contemporary communication problems between people, never adequately developed in the play, but the playwright and the Trinity troupe, directed by Beth F. Milles, certainly have fun making up for the vagueness of the MacGuffin.

The woman who answered the phone, Jean (Janice Duclos), gets more and more acquainted with the man's life as she keeps answering calls and sadly informing people of his demise. To his distraught wife, Hermia (Phyllis Kay), she even pretends that she worked for him and that he wanted her to keep the phone.

Other lies about his deathbed (deathtable?) pronouncements are more generous. Jean also tells Hermia that his last words were that he loved her. To his mean-spirited mother (Barbara Meek), to whom he hadn't been speaking, Jean says that he finally relented and tried to call her the day he died.

The dead man was Gordon Gottlieb (Richard Donelly). He was well-dressed, in a three-piece suit, when he expired, but for a while Jean knows nothing more about him. He is a blank slate, and upon that she writes her hopes for the kind of person he might have been. Jean needs nothing more, or lacks the imagination for anything more, than that he be nice. Indications are that Gordon was more interesting than that. A slinky femme fatale with an indeterminate middle-European accent, billed only as The Other Woman (Rachael Warren), thinks that Jean was his girlfriend. With exaggerated posturings out of Boris and Natasha cartoons, she indicates that Gordon was at least as sinister as herself.

Jean begins to fill out the picture of him through his relatives. In church giving a eulogy, his mother finds nothing significant to say until there's a familiar interruption and she barks: "Could someone please turn their fucking cell phone off?!" There aren't many "sacred places" left free of ringtones, she laments; only the church, the theater, and the toilet. And when she asks the audience if someone has ever answered while quietly urinating, sure enough, some hands go up.

Since we can be in touch with anyone at any time, technologically, this implies an intimacy — not that one actually exists. Jean goes so far as to say that though she "only knew him for a short time," she thinks she loved Gordon — "in a way."

That sets her up for falling for his brother, Dwight. He's also played by Donelly, though nothing is said about there being a family resemblance. They meet and are mutually smitten at an awkward family dinner. Jean takes the occasion to invent that Gordon, knowing he was dying, wanted to give them things from the café: a salt shaker to his wife, for being the salt of the earth; a cup to his brother, because he could hold things well. Poor Dwight. His mother hung that moniker on him because she felt sorry for the name.

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