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Dead Man’s Cell Phone

By Sarah Ruhlenthisasts theatre

Directed by Toma Tavares Langston

Produced by The Enthusiasts Theatre Company

At the Athenaeum Theatre, Chicago

Uneven disjointed production of Sarah Ruhl’s problem quirky comedy is tough going

My second time with Dead Man’s Cell Phone minus a seasoned Equity cast (Steppenwolf theatre’ s 2008 production), got Ruhl’s quirky writing exposed for what it is: a weirdly unfunny story filled with speeches that play as diatribes that are more tedious than funny.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a play that is part mystery, based on a “what if” happening and part fable in a naturalistic motif. The play has an electronic character (a cell phone) that is a portal into one life. Ruhl demonstrates how much an extension of our lives cell phones have become.

enthisasts theatre

When a nerdy, lonely 39 year old single woman, Jean (Erin Kelly Outson), setting in a coffee shot, becomes irritated when the man at the next table’s cell phone keeps ringing, she answers it and quickly discovers that he is dead. She instantly decides to enter his life through his cell phone that she takes with her. This portal is her escape from the dreariness of her life. Her desire to make a connection to this man overwhelms her as she becomes obsessed with learning about him, Gordon (Gary F. Barth). Why she does that unfolds on several levels that becomes more than simply her desire to connect with an unknown man. Curiosity? Loneliness? Or does Jean want to find a new life spirit or purpose?

She answers the cell phone and learns about Gordon’s family. She meets Mrs. Gottlieb (Nancy Greco), Gordon’s weird mother and his brother, Dwight (Arne Saupe) and his widow, Hermia (Shelly Nixon). She gradually learns about Gordon and she invents lies that comfort each about what Gordon said about each just before his death. We know that Gordon never spoke a word to Jean. It seems that she has a need to help these folks remember Gordon in a positive, loving light. Playwright Ruhl develops memorable characters as she  gives each some wacky dialogue, especially Hermia and Mrs. Gottlieb.

Act two opens with a wordy monologue wherein Gordon tells us his story and his unique profession as a body parts broker matching donors with needy patients for large fees. This sardonic and amoral man unfolds as a most unlovable soul. Only Jean has some empathy for this guy. Jean has developed a passion for the equally lonely Dwight.

This production by the fledgling new troupe, The Enthusiasts Theatre Company contains uneven performances that ring untrue. Nancy Greco’s Mrs. Gottlieb as over-the-top as was Katherine Bellantone’s The Other Woman. The lighting miscues together with the weak functioning air conditioner made for an uncomfortable experience. This show reeks of community theatre.

Without giving away too much of the plot, let me state that fantasy and incredulous twists send this provocative drama into a strange resolution that will offend some. Dead Man’s Cell Phone contains a linguistic paradox where the dead continue to exist through their cell phone. The after life and the black market figure into the scenario. We never buy this for a moment. This script was simply over the heads of the cast and the director. It is a tough outing for an Equity cast that stretched the creatives at Steppenwolf in 2008. This production doesn’t come close to being stage worthy.

Not Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: July 11, 2013

For more info checkout the Dead man’s Cell Phone page at

At the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, Chicago, Il, call 773-935-6875, tickets$20, Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 2 hours, 5 minutes with intermission, through July 27, 2014