When “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” opens, a man, hunched over, sits silently at a table as his cell phone rings incessantly. All you hear is ringing; all you see is the back of his head.
A bold move in staging a play, but it foreshadows a lesson the audience will learn later — the identity of this man does not matter.
In the semilunar setting of the Morse/Stiles Crescent theater, Jean (Sarah DeLappe ’12) — a single, almost 40-year-old version of Nia Vardalos in the first half of “My Greek Fat Greek Wedding” — begins answering the cell phone of a man who has died from a heart attack at the table next to her in a café. Pretending to have known him as a work colleague, Jean gradually starts to assume the identity of the dead man, Gordon Gottfried (Hunter Wolk ’12). She dines with his family, goes out with his wife and develops a romantic relationship with his brother. On stage.
Just as much as Jean is getting to know the man who was Gordon, she invents her own version of him. She concocts lies in order to comfort his relatives — extramarital affair included — about his death, telling his mistress (Cleo Handler ’12) that Gordon loved her, and his wife (Ava Kofman ’14) that he cared for her in bed. In reality, though, Jean only ends up fooling herself. DeLappe succeeds in presenting Jean as a combination of good intentions and insanity. She projects her own desires and hopes on Gordon, turning him into her ideal man. DeLappe leaves the question of whether Jean is really concerned about the well-being of Gordon’s family, or whether she is delusional.
A high point of the show is Gordon’s mother, Harriet (Allison Collins ’11). Harriet is a vivacious, slightly abrasive woman who could never communicate her love for Gordon. Harriet’s melodramatic exclamations provided comic relief in a rather dark show. Meanwhile, Gordon’s brother, Dwight (Jeremy Lloyd ‘12), provides a timidly charming love interest for Jean, but proves to lack depth. Dwight seemed to lie on the periphery, only functioning as a distraction from the show’s central themes.
When she is finally able to come face-to-face with Gordon, Jean finds a self-absorbed, fast-talking criminal. The confrontation between the two occurs in a weak dream sequence in which Feldman tries to make the audience believe that Jean is dead. Still, despite leaving the after taste of a cop-out, the scene was altogether necessary for the purposes of the plot. At one point she tells him, “I liked it better when you couldn’t talk.” Jean would rather cling to her imaginary version of Gordon than see him as the person who is standing in front of her.
The play provides important commentary on the value of leaving behind a memory. Gordon’s memory is perpetuated by Jean, but once the audience is introduced to the actual character or Gordon, a performance reminiscent of Aaron Eckhart in “Thank You For Smoking,” it is obvious that the two couldn’t be more different.
“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” tries to counter the notion that technology isolates people. In Feldman’s production, it creates relationships, and winds up helping a lonely woman find love. Technology does not urge people to forget about Gordon, but allows the memory of Gordon to live on via Jean — it has the power to replace direct human interactions as a dominant means of communication.
In a play overrun with a pessimistic perception of human nature, the happy ending seemed inorganically inserted, as an attempt to please the audience.
The play is emotive and provocative, and beyond all of its morbid quirks, its success stems from the doubts it has in human nature.
“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is playing at Morse/Stiles Crescent Theater through Saturday.