A Bridge Or A Wall?

A Bridge Or A Wall?

0616 AN WU rlt cell phone

Courtesy Photo

Rachael Small is Jean, a young woman whose life is changed by a “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” in the APT production running this weekend. Kris Isham plays the surprisingly present dead man.

Life, love and cell phones pondered in APT play

“There are only one or two sacred places left in the world where there is no ringing.”

“You’ll never walk alone, because you’ll always have a machine in your pants that might ring.”

“I want to remember everything — even other people’s memories.”

“Remembering requires paper.”


As I recall — and that’s usually not very well — I promised we’d have some theater reviews in The Free Weekly. I can also safely promise you’ll have a lot to think — and talk — about if you choose to see “Dead Man’s Cell Phone.”

The premise of the 2008 Sarah Ruhl play, wrapping up this weekend at Arkansas Public Theatre, is that once you take responsibility for having a cell phone, you’re never alone. The question is whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing — whether cell phones have brought us together or torn us apart. The answer is probably “both.”

First the set, which is simple and simply compelling. If you’ve seen “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” then you’ll recognize designer Ed McClure’s idea of moving screens which catch projections of the play’s various locations. Using the thrust stage at APT, the concept works beautifully.

As the play opens, a young woman, Jean (Rachael Small) is sitting on a bench, facing the audience. On the same bench is a man facing away. His cell phone starts to ring — a cringe-worthy sound in a theater, right? — and he fails to answer. Jean finally loses her patience to find “that the man is not afflicted with rudeness but with a mild case of rigor mortis,” as critic Charles Isherwood put it in The New York Times.

As Jean will say later in the play, a ringing phone demands to be answered — and she does, over and over, explaining his death to Gordon Gottlieb’s survivors. She becomes almost his guardian angel — think “It’s a Wonderful Life” — trying to make sure he’s lovingly remembered by his caricature of a mother (Terry Vaughan), his emotionally estranged wife (Amy Eversole), his mysterious mistress (Yvonne Scorse) and his brother, who might be the only sane person in the bunch. Keep in mind, Gordon (played by Kris Isham, last seen in “The Santaland Diaries” at APT) was dead before Jean ever “met” him, but still she feels this obligation to clean up after him — connection created by an electronic device. Along the way, she and his brother connect in real life — but the phone keeps interfering.

Does any of this sound familiar?

The comedy — for such it is, even if the laughter is tinged with self-deprecating cringing — has that ethereal quality of a Brecht or Albee piece. Director Joseph Farmer describes it as “While You Were Sleeping” meets “The Glass Menagerie” with a little touch of “Orphan Black.”

“It’s a contemporary comedy, ripped from today’s lives,” he says. “It’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s romantic, it’s mysterious — it’s a fun, funky little trip.” It is also, he admits, an unusual choice for Arkansas Public Theatre. “It’s a little cerebral at times, but not so high brow it’s inaccessible — something you might expect to see at a university theater.” He uses the word “quirky,” too, and says he’s settled on saying: “It’s an unconventional story told unconventionally.”

As it turns out in the story — as it usually does in real life — no good deed goes unpunished. Jean finds out that Gordon was none of the wonderful things she tried to make him out to be, and even the connection she made with his memory has a price. It’s disconnected her from reality.

“I never had a cellphone,” she says at one point. “I didn’t want to be there, you know. Like if your phone is on you’re supposed to be there. Sometimes I like to disappear. But it’s like — when everyone has their cellphones on, no one is there. It’s like we’re all disappearing the more we’re there.”

“[Ruhl’s] affection for the unexpected phrase, the kooky observation, the unlikely juxtaposition is essential to her central belief that the smallest and most trivial things in life — a bowl of lobster bisque, in Gordon’s case — can be charged with meaning,” Isherwood wrote in The New York Times. “And her characters’ quirkiness is in keeping, too, with the play’s doleful central theme, that each human being is a book full of surprises even to intimates, and one that is destined to be left unfinished.”

Set Me Free (Weekly)

Becca Martin-Brown