Monday, April 20, 2009

Theater review: Faulty connection in ‘Dead Man's Cell Phone’

Natasha Sherritt as Jean
in Dead Man's Cell Phone.


By Hap Erstein

Over its 19 years of operation, Palm Beach Shakespeare Company has always sought the quirky, even when producing the works of its namesake playwright. So it was probably inevitable that it would gravitate to the offbeat metaphysical scripts of Sarah Ruhl.

But curiously, its rendition of her increasingly popular comedy, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, is remarkably restrained and understated.

The acclaimed off-Broadway hit had its area premiere just a month and a half ago at Plantation’s Mosaic Theatre, and arrived in a new take over the weekend for a four-day run at Palm Beach Gardens’ Eissey Campus Theatre. Neither the facility’s wide stage nor its acoustics problems were ideal for the intimate work, though scenic designers Daniel and Anita Gordon filled the playing space with an elegant array of post-modern cell towers.

Playwright Sarah Ruhl

The strength of Ruhl’s play is in its premise. A woman named Jean is interrupted from her café meal by that increasingly ubiquitous gadget — a ringing cell phone. When its owner at an adjacent table refuses to answer it, Jean goes over to chastise him for his rudeness, only to realize that he had died moments earlier. So since, as she puts it, “If a phone rings, you have to answer it,” she takes possession of the gizmo, becoming the corpse’s
posthumous secretary, taking messages, consoling the grieving and becoming unexpectedly involved with the family and friends of Gordon, the deceased.

At Mosaic, Jean was played as a walking neurotic, which certainly offered an added layer of comedy. At Palm Beach Shakespeare, Natasha Sherritt plays her as an empty vessel to be filled with electronic messages, telling people what they want to hear, somewhat reminiscent of Peter Sellers’ Chauncey Gardiner in Being There.

The interpretation is valid and probably more comfortable for the relatively inexperienced actress, but it dulls the production. Instead of making Jean the tour de force role intended, Sherritt fades into the ensemble.

She leaves the bravura acting to David Hyland as dead Gordon. He opens the second act with a monologue in which he recalls the afternoon of his death, going to the café because of a lobster bisque craving. There he notices and becomes smitten with Jean just before his demise. Gordon shakes up the play, just as Hyland wakes up the production. And between the two of them, you can pick up a few tangential tips on sushi.

Even the reliable Margot Hartman Tenney misses the considerable humor in Mrs. Gottlieb, Gordon’s domineering mother. Also in the cast are Greta Von Unruh as Gordon’s wife, Patrick A. Wilkinson as his brother and Kay Prins as his mistress.

The best notion to come from co-directors Kermit Christman and Del Tenney was to commission a two-minute contemporary ballet by Ballet Florida’s Jerry Opdenaker, inserted in the second act. Dead Man’s Cell Phone does not have much to say, but if it is about anything it is the nexus between love and technology today. Opdenaker’s pas de deux, danced by the lovely — and barely clothed — Ed Erwin and Melissa Bosomworth was a romantic duet with several consciously awkward lifts, reminiscent of Twyla Tharp.

With her intimations of mortality, Ruhl seems to want to say something, but after seeing her play twice in relatively quick succession, I remain at a loss to know what that is. She does have a flair for comedy, even if most of that remained unrealized in Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival’s production.

DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE completed its run on Sunday.

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