Given that they are typically the last things that everyone in the audience touches before the curtain goes up, it was bound to happen — there’s now a play about cell phones. Once all the phones in the house are turned off, the phone at the center of Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone starts to ring, and for the next two hours, it’s that fictional onstage phone, and not the one sitting quietly in your pocket, that occupies the center of your attention. Fortunately, with playwright extraordinaire Ruhl involved, these will definitely be calls you want to take.
Ruhl, whose Eurydice and The Clean House have both received strong Santa Barbara productions in recent years, is one of the world’s most interesting contemporary writers. She’s fully capable of using a dead man’s cell phone as the point of departure for an entire evening’s worth of funny, surprising, and insightful theater. In case anyone is wondering, according to Katie Laris, who is directing the piece for the Theatre Group at SBCC, the message is unequivocal — “cell phones are bad.” How so? “While they attempt to connect us, in the end, they are an alienating force,” said Laris, who is thoroughly enjoying the rehearsal process for this production, which will be staged in the college’s intimate black box, the Jurkowitz Theatre.
The cast includes a number of the area’s finest actors, including Brian Harwell as Gordon, the dead man; Jenna Scanlon as Jean, the protagonist; and Shannon Saleh, Justin Stark, Kathy Marden, and Leona Paraminski. The play begins when Jean decides it’s better to answer a dead stranger’s ringing phone than to let it keep on disrupting her night, and from there the twists and turns of Ruhl’s inexhaustible imagination take over. Jean has virtually every experience you can have on the phone — she encounters mysterious others, she learns more than she wanted to about the deceased Gordon, and she even falls in love — with the phone. It’s a great role for a fine comic actress like Scanlon, and the evening promises to be one of the season’s highlights for fans of serious theater, despite the fact that, as with other works by Ruhl, the show is essentially a comedy.
Director Laris marvels at the script’s freedom from theatrical tradition, saying that in some ways, Ruhl is “like Beckett — it’s all about punctuation,” but that in others, she’s all on her own. “She’ll have characters speaking their unspoken thoughts along with their lines,” she told me, “and she’s got ellipses that are so strong the actors and I can hardly believe it. She knows just how to embody a big idea without any words.” Although Ruhl is well known for her meticulous specifications regarding pauses and silence, she’s also capable of handing actors and directors big chunks of business to improvise. Laris cites as one of her favorite examples the stage direction “cell phone ballet.” “How great is that?” she asked me. “What an incredible suggestion. You have this terrific idea, but it is totally up to you what you do with it.”
The play remains set in 2007, the year it premiered, when certain cell phone phenomena such as texting had not yet reached their current level of popularity. Despite the inevitable datedness that accompanies any show that relies so heavily on specific technology, in the end, Dead Man’s Cell Phone is, according to the director, “a fairy tale, because it’s about a journey from innocence to knowledge,” and that’s something you are going to want to hear. So please, take this moment to silence your electronic devices so that you can listen to this one.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone is at Santa Barbara City College’s Jurkowitz Theatre April 17-May 2. For tickets and information, call (805) 965-5935 or visit theatregroupsbcc.com.