Dead Man's Cell Phone opened Friday at Raleigh Little Theatre. The play's action spirals from a rainy day in a café when a woman answers a dead man's cell phone. From there, her world is permanently changed as she tries to comfort his relatives and tie up his loose ends. The playwright, the popular Sarah Ruhl, is known for her witty, fantastical writing. While her words are still performed, RLT's production fell short of hopes. Lead character Jean, played by Morrisa Nagel, took on a difficult role but didn't capture the audience's empathy. Jean gets herself wrapped up in a series of difficult and awkward circumstances but without the right nuance, Jean becomes little more than a liar. The cast all the way around had issues with interpretations to the point that the styles of the production seemed crossed.
The set design and sound design were excellent, but the projections and costumes were hit or miss. The scenic and lighting designer (as well as the technical director), Thomas Mauney, created a wonderfully versatile and minimalist set that suited the production very well. The sound designer and sound engineer, Todd Houseknecht, also did a fine job with creating unity in the piece.
The best scene was after intermission when Hermia, played by Tracey Phillips, is drunkenly telling Jean about her life with her husband. Phillips carried a strong character honestly and found the funny in the lines. I truly haven't laughed out loud in a theater like that in a long time.
This play's contemporary, yet mystical, style is difficult to pull off without embracing its honesty. At times this production unintentionally became more like a farce due to the directing and acting styles.
Ruhl's work brings honest feelings out of what initially sounds illogical, and she uses bizarrely comical circumstances to show us the truth. Dead Man's Cell Phone juxtaposes the absurdity of cell phones with the necessity of the communication they offer. We see how they bring us together and yet how they can isolate us, too. Ruhl's excellent work is continuing to grow in popularity and I'm happy to see it playing in Raleigh.
Dead Man's Cell Phonewill continue to play at RLT until February 5th. For details, see the sidebar.