Friday, 2 July 2010

Dead Man’s Cell Phone ***

Dead Man’s Cell Phone
By Sarah Ruhl, Melbourne Theatre Company
 Sumner Theatre, MTC, July 2 to August 7, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Do irritating ring tones and mindless mobile phone chatter drive you to thoughts of bodily harm? In Sarah Ruhl’s black comedy, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Jean (Lisa McCune) politely answers the persistently ringing phone of a stranger, Gordon, (John Adam) who is seated at the next table in a café.

After answering the first call, she discovers that the man is dead in his chair then calls for help – on his phone; a reasonable reaction, but her ensuing actions are totally bonkers. She chats to Gordon’s body while waiting for help. Still rational? She continues to answer keeps Gordon’s calls from his mother (Sue Jones), wife (Sarah Sutherland) and colleagues, telling them he will call back or breaking news of his death. Still sounding plausible?

Jean then develops elaborate lies about being Gordon’s colleague, accepts invitations to visit the grieving family, meets with the mysterious lover (Emma Jackson) and invents comforting stories about Gordon’s last words about each of them. And she’s still answering his calls, insisting that Gordon left his phone to her as his last wish. Now, does she sound bonkers?

The idea is eccentric and funny, and some of Ruhl’s dialogue is hilarious. The cast, directed by Peter Evans,  has impeccable comic timing, capturing the eccentricity of the heightened, comical characters and plunging headlong into the mad world of the play. Gordon’s family dynamic makes Jean’s fantasies seem tame.

McCune is a charming, quietly funny Jean, making her a mousey, obliging, angel of mercy struggling to manage her web of white lies. Jones has fun portraying Mrs. Gottlieb, Gordon’s controlling mother, as a comically repellent, eccentric, selfish bully. As her ignored second son, Dwight, Daniel Frederiksen plays the family wimp with relish.

Sutherland tosses her blonde mane and totters drunkenly on high heels as Hermia, Gordon’s privileged but abandoned wife, while Jackson is exotic and sexy as Gordon’s Hispanic lover. Adam finally appears as the charismatic, egotistical Gordon in the final scenes, revealing Gordon’s murky, immoral, money-spinning role in organ trafficking.

Despite the marvellous performances, Ruhl’s script, by the end, feels contrived and lacks a clear dramatic structure and narrative arc, not because of its leaps of fantasy (inaccurately described as “magic realism”), but because even absurd narratives require an inner logic. The style is inconsistent, lurching from a commentary on contemporary life and phone etiquette to absurd comedy or existentialist drama. Versatile actors make this production entertaining.

By Kate Herbert

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