South Coast Rep's 'Dead Man's Cell Phone' Is Just a Rehash of a Lame Rom-Com
Dead Man’s Cell Phone starts off with much promise before becoming a lame comedy
If you’re the cranky guy screaming at drivers who still use their cell phones (sans hands-free devices), or grit your teeth when the businessman at the next table does a sales pitch on his Bluetooth, or just a dullard who actually gives an obsessive damn about what strangers are doing, then Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone is just for you.?But if you’re less absorbed with the dysfunctional minutia of others and think that romantic comedies are the devil’s spawn, you’ll find this picaresque whimsy is more akin to a poster child for a co-dependency 12-step program than anything resembling entertainment.
When the phone on the table of the man sitting across from Jean rings and rings, she pesters him to pick it up, actually going to the table to answer it herself when he doesn’t acknowledge her. Initially slow on the uptake, it readily becomes apparent to her that the man has died. She takes the corpse’s hand, tells him things are going to be all right, and then steals his phone. A great start, this moment is touching, odd and sad. I was caught up immediately . . . but not for long.
Jean begins answering the phone, giving the callers the bad news, and then starts stalking the dead man’s family, ingratiating herself into their lives emotionally (and sexually) under the guise of “comfort.” As she blithely lies to the family about her friendship with the man and his nonexistent dying last words of love for them, I felt profoundly unsettled (usually a good thing)—but then thought, “Haven’t I seen this before?” Before you can say While You Were Sleeping or Mrs. Winterbourne, by the end of Dead Man’s Cell Phone, it’s clear South Coast Repertory’s production is really just an opulent rehash of high-concept filmic crap—a rom-com desperately seeking a movie producer.
One hopes in vain for an Ortonesque vibe, as the outsider’s introduction to the family becomes progressively darker and family closet doors are thrown wide open, but I suspect Ruhl wasn’t really interested in going in that direction. (I say “suspect” because I haven’t read the play.) I’ve heard great things about Ruhl, but a director (in this case, the usually talented Bart DeLorenzo) can mangle the tone of a piece very easily, so I’m unsure whether it’s Ruhl who is in love with her story’s empty-headed preciousness, or DeLorenzo’s take on it. Whether it’s because the writer or the director didn’t trust her/his own darker instincts and begged off committing to the story’s inherent gloom, or because a film script will sell more tickets with a nonsensical happily ever-after Hollywood ending that offends no one, I can’t say. (There are three or four different codas to the show, and the final one was definitely not the best—or most truthful—ending, so Ruhl herself seems pretty conflicted about what she’s inflicting on the audience.)
Logic isn’t a necessity for being a good playwright, but to my way of thinking, a good play leads us in the right direction, then sets us free to find the point for ourselves. Less stellar scripting doesn’t have much of a point at all, covering up the failure with clever one-liners or stupid, confusing plot twists. Like Jean, it tells us the facile things we want to hear—things like how it’s important to love others and that being a jerk makes people sad—then pats us on the head and sends us on our way, expecting us to be comforted with bullshit.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone at South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. Through Oct. 12. $20-$64.
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