Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Mar 6, 2014
04:07 PM
Stage Write

Aren't You Going to Answer That?

Aren't You Going to Answer That?

PHOTO BY JASON ATKINS

(From left) Sarah Karon, Heather Renken, Brian Royston and Karen Lazar share the world's most awkward dinner party in MTG's 'Dead Man's Cell Phone.'

“When something rings, you have to answer it!”

That’s a sentiment most of us would either recognize or cop to, given how pervasive smartphones (and the people who are always on them) have become in nearly every phase of our lives. And it’s definitely an apt way to describe the outlook of Jean, the mousy protagonist of Sarah Ruhl’s quirky Dead Man’s Cell Phone, being staged by Madison Theatre Guild through March 15 at the Bartell Theatre. Almost forty, Jean seems to have been waiting her entire life for a call that has yet to come.  

When it finally does, it’s on the phone at a neighboring café table. The owner doesn’t answer, so Jean (Sarah Karon) finally does, at which point she realizes the uncomfortable truth that he's, well, never going to be answering calls again. Instead of ditching the phone, she hangs onto it, continuing to answer every call. Before you can say, “Sorry, he’s not here,” Jean’s been drawn into the mysterious life of Gordon Gottlieb (Sam D. White).

It’s a fascinating and fun premise that gives the play license to examine and poke fun at the ways in which cellphones fundamentally altered the way we interact with each other. As she finds herself unexpectedly connected to a man she never knew or had even spoken to, Jean suddenly becomes the connector, fabricating ridiculous stories to soothe and provide closure to the people in Gordon’s life—his mistress (Alicia McCanna), his widow (Heather Renken), his mom (Karen Lazar) and his gentle-spirit brother Dwight (Brian Royston).   

As Jean, Karon has a charming, awkward, eagerness that makes it easy for the audience to sympathize with her mousiness, even when she’s making some truly head-slapping choices. Lazar’s also great as the cool-removed Mrs. Gottlieb, slicing the silence with bizarre observations.

The phone, meanwhile, sparks a crisis for Jean. Even though she’s never had one herself—“I just didn’t always want to be there,” she says at one point—she’s afraid that if she stops answering the late Gordon’s calls, he’ll cease to exist, and she’ll lose her connection to him. Her fears jeopardize a budding relationship with Dwight, a guy who still prefers to communicate on paper—embroidered paper.

Sam White kicks off the play’s second act with an absolutely arresting monologue from the afterlife. Summing up the emotions and events of Gordon’s final day on earth with the precision of a sushi chef carving salmon, he’s a powerful and compelling counterpoint to the other characters, all of whom are trapped in some sort of desperation and/or denial. Gordon’s hardly a hero or role model, but at least he knows who he is.    

It’s writer Ruhl, however, who seems to be most in need of directory assistance. The absurdities pile up like steak bones on a plate in the second act, as the script loses focus and the action starts to involve outlandish things like organ trafficking, fisticuffs in a foreign airport and a stint in the afterlife —let’s just say the ending’s a little less graceful and focused than the beginning.

Ruhl penned Dead Man’s Cell Phone seven years ago, and while parts of it still feel relevant—the relationship between tech and identity only gets murkier with each new advance, especially for those who are late adopters—other pieces of its observational package feel almost quaint at this point. Truthfully, it’s now social media platforms that shape and define our interpersonal connection and identity more than phone conversations. Jean’s in serious trouble if she ever discovers Twitter and Snapchat.

Be prepared to be wowed by the props director L.M. Attea uses to highlight Jean and Dwight’s romantic tête-à-tête—metal parasols supporting countless houses of embroidered stationary, each lit up like a floating luminaria. It’s an oddly specific touch in a set that couldn’t be more workmanlike and bland, but remarkable nonetheless.

Dead Man's Cell Phone runs through March 15. For more information, visit madisontheatreguild.org

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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