Wednesday, February 21, 2024

REVIEW: CTG's "Dead Man's Cell Phone" More Ludicrous Than Convincing

By Ruth Ross

It had been some time—actually, before the pandemic in 2020—since I had reviewed a production by the Chester Theatre Group at the Black River Playhouse, so it was with anticipation that I trekked west to see the troupe’s latest production, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, by prize-winning playwright Sarah Ruhl.

An incessantly ringing cell phone in a quiet café. A stranger at the next table who has had enough of it. And a dead man-with a lot of loose ends. Dead Man's Cell Phone uses farce, surrealism and absurdist dialogue to examine and poke fun at how we remember the dead and how that memorialization changes us through the journey of a woman forced to confront her own presumptions about morality, redemption and isolation in a technologically obsessed society.

With a penchant for oddball characters and wacky plots, Ruhl tackles such weighty themes with, for me, limited success. Like two other other of her plays I have previously reviewed, Dead Man's Cell Phone as written features cartoon characters, endless philosophical ruminations and uneven dramatic pacing.

All this might have worked—after all, the play was awarded the 2007 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play—but the current production suffers from pokey direction and a lack of chemistry among characters. Part of this problem lies at the feet of Director Joe Guadara, who, from his Google resume and a glib, rather droll, Playbill note written by Jay Mills, is a first-timer. One of the aspects of absurdist theater is that the actors, no matter how ridiculous their dialogue, must sound convincing. Unfortunately, there is an overabundance of histrionics, with actors reciting the playwright’s words, instead of delivering them naturally. Perhaps, a director more familiar with this genre of theater could have elicited better performances from his cast, many of them local stage regulars. As it is, none of the characters is especially admirable.

Making her CTG debut, Meghan Coates does fairly well as Jean, the young woman who discovers the dead man’s cell phone in the café. Certainly, she has the bulk of the dialogue to deliver, much of it as she traverses the stage to the playhouse’s four corners set up as different venues. It is her character that initiates the debacle with this cell phone that belonged to Gordon, a man with a very shady and questionable past, played with some aplomb by Keith Beechey, despite his odious past and occupation.

Coates’ Jean comes off as earnest and well meaning, telling lies to make Gordon’s family and friends feel better at his passing. Some of these tales get her into major trouble, make her question her own morality, and, as the lies get more complex and outlandish, eventually lead her to seek redemption. Beechey’s passionless portrayal of Gordon—appropriate, given that he’s dead—lends credence to the fact that he's really amoral and despicable.

Sky Spiegel Monroe, unrecognizable at first in a brown wig and bright red lipstick, performs well as Gordon’s mistress but descends into true camp as a stranger Jean encounters in South Africa, complete with red trench coat and giant sunglasses. Fight choreographer George LaVigne is to be complimented on his directing of the fracas between the two women.

Less successful performances are rendered by the remaining three actors. As Gordon’s mother, the battle axe Mrs.  Gottlieb, Lynn Langone barks her dialogue. Yes, she’s supposed to be appalling and clueless about boundaries (her speech at Gordon’s funeral goes quickly off the rails of appropriateness and decency), but much of it is so over the top as to feel and sound fake. Veteran actor Sarah Pharaon’s drunk scene as Gordon’s widow Hermia also feels overblown, and newbie—to CTG—Shawn Dawiskiba, playing Gordon’s younger, abused brother Dwight appeared to be somewhat uncomfortable onstage.

The ensemble of Joshua Belmonte, Debbie Colacino, Ellen Fraker-Glasscock and Michael Yoder do a yeoman’s job moving props on and off the central playing space and acting as angels in the afterworld.

The four corners of the black box theatre credibly serve as various venues: the café, a church pulpit, Mrs. Gottlieb’s Victorian foyer and the stationery store where Dwight works; no set designer was named, but the playbill lists Joe Guadara, Mike Yoder, Craig Zimmerman, Chris Mortenson, Carol Holland, Keith Beechey, Kathleen Aste and Alex Vargas in its construction and painting.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone tries, through absurd characters and ludicrous dialogue, to make the point about how isolated we really are in this age of constant connection through our technological devices. For me, the Chester Theatre Group’s current production almost makes the point. My dissatisfaction arises from the cast’s inability to deliver ludicrous dialogue convincing in this, another of Sarah Ruhl’s plays that tackles weighty themes through absurdity, thus blunting the point she’s trying to make.

The Chester Theatre Group is one of but two local community theaters that consistently goes out on a limb to produce off-beat material that stirs controversy. They are to be commended for tackling a difficult play. I attended the opening night performance; hopefully, as the run progresses, the cast will feel more comfortable onstage and will be more successful.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone will be performed at the Black River Playhouse, 54 Grove Street, Chester, through March 3. For information and tickets, call the box office at 908.879.7304 or visit online.