There is a fine group of young actors in the cast of Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, a surrealistic and sometimes confusing play (I wish there were more production notes to help make the play more accessible) at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland.
With fine direction by KJ Sanchez, the production also boasts some creative design by Lighting Designer Andrew Cissna, Sound Designer Christopher Baine, Sscenic Designer Douglas Clarke, and Costume Designer Kelsey Hunt, who made the play beautiful to look at. The lighting was varied, both interesting and effective, while the sound (especially the various cell phone sounds) was crucial to the play. The costumes, especially those for Riley Bartlebaugh (as the exaggerated mother of the dead man), were also striking and contributed to the surreal (and at times, film noir) mood of the play. The 2008 play tells the story of mousy Jean who answers, and then keeps, a dead man’s cell phone in a café, only to become more and more entangled in the lives of the people who surrounded him: his mother, his wife, his mistress, his brother. Along the way, she finds herself in an “oddly intimate” relationship with the dead man and his family, interspersed with moments of morbid humor and startling poignancy. The effort and skill of the actors was apparent: Madeline Whiting’s Jean was especially winning, her innocence and naiveté providing a much needed contrast to the dark mood and over-the-top characters that populate the rest of the play. Jonathan Helwig, too, as the dead man, gave a wonderful monologue at the beginning of the second act, making the dead man (who by now we knew was not exactly a model citizen) oddly charismatic. They were ably supported by Riley Bartlebaugh, Korinn Walfall, Shane O’Loughlin, and Ruth Anne Watkins, as well as an ensemble of Emma Lou Hebert, Sarah Juliano, Christopher Lane, Sam Mauceri, Nadia Mohebban, and Daniel Riker that greatly added to the surrealist atmosphere of the play. The tone of the play varied widely, between almost saccharinely-sweet moments of tenderness, extraordinarily over-the-top scenes and dialogue, and scenes that were simply surreal and confusing, including one funny action sequence that seemed to resemble nothing else so much as a comic-book fight—well-done and funny. While the actors did justice to the material, the play itself simply left me confused and struggling to figure out what was meant by scenes, or lines, or even by the play as a whole. I really enjoyed the song sung by Madeline Whiting and Shane O’Laughlin during the curtain calls that O’Laughlin wrote!
Dead Man’s Cell Phone boasts the talents of these fine young actors, and is definitely worth the trip to College Park. Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone plays through Saturday, March 9, 2013 at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center—3800 Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the intersection of Stadium Drive and Route 193 (University Boulevard) at University of Maryland in College Park, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 405-ARTS (2787) or purchase them online.