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Review: “Dead Man’s Cell Phone”

Staff Writer
Austin 360

At a quiet café, a cell phone rings.

It rings again, and again, and again, each time progressively louder. Finally, an exasperated woman grabs the phone from a man who sits at a nearby table, quiet and still, seeming to ignore the call. To her surprise, it turns out the man is actually dead.

This strange event kicks off Sarah Ruhl’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” a bizarre but intriguing comedy presented by the University of Texas’ theater program at Brocket Theatre through Feb. 23.

Jean (Mackenzie Dunn) quickly finds herself fascinated by the dead man, Gordon (Harrison Harvey), and with each phone call she picks up she insinuates herself deeper into his world. She ends up at a dinner party with his coldly sophisticated mother (Maddrey Blackwood), his wife Hermia (Tasha Gorel), and his brother Dwight (Joseph Keith Wilson), with whom she finds romance and connection fueled by their mutual love of embossed stationary.

Even as Jean begins to learn that Gordon was not as perfect as she imagines, she struggles to let go of her connection with him, and the play takes ever-increasingly odd twists as Jean decides how far she will go in her quest to understand the dead man.

Playwright Sarah Ruhl is keen on the surreal, punctuating her plays with moments of absurdity. She also has a talent for writing astute lines that often hit the audience with surprising force. Her work straddles the line between the everyday and the odd, creating challenging tonal shifts for actors. In UT’s production, the actors perform in a precise, stylized way, often nailing the humor of their lines but sometimes missing moments to truly connect with other characters and the audience.

Director Jess Hutchinson highlights the dream-like feel of the play through creative staging and use of unexpected movement sequences. Yongmin Lee’s minimalist set is a blank canvas for projection designer Patrick Lord to display a series of black and white animations (original art by Jason Buchanan) that bring a touch of whimsy to the stage and flesh out the locations.

The play’s themes are remarkably current. In addition to asking the audience to consider our relationship to our cell phones, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” asks us to think about how we interact with technology and how we form connections in a fragmented and distracted world.

Consider this musing from Jean, who didn’t have a cell phone of her own before answering Gordon’s: “If your cell phone is on you’re supposed to be there,” she says.

“Sometimes I like to disappear.”

“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” continues through Feb. 23. 8 p.m. Feb. 19-22 at 8 p.m., 2 p.m. Feb. 23. Oscar G. Brockett Theatre, Winship Building, 300 E. 23rd Street. $15-$25. Tickets at www.texasperformingarts.org.