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MAT dials up a wicked comedy

There’s something crass about a cell phone being the subject of a play. It’s like a forbidden fruit but without the romantic flair or sensual charm of, say, Turkish Delights or a rare diamond or an opium den. After all, the cell phone’s made of metal and plastic, and it’s too new in our world to be glamorously retro. Beyond obvious statements about obnoxious yell-talkers and dangerous drivers, or even more philosophical debates on the sociological impacts of texting, what more can you say about cell phones?

Well, as it turns out, a lot. Dead Man’s Cell Phone, by playwright Sarah Ruhl, focuses on the cell phone as a bewitching object of modern addiction. It rings and people answer it. It connects the main character, Jean, to all the other characters. Its very presence becomes an obstacle to love.

We get the play’s title in the very first scene. Jean sits at a diner sipping soup when she hears a cell phone ringing at the table next to her. She ignores it, but when the owner refuses to answer—clearly breaking cell phone etiquette—she patiently asks him if he’s going to pick it up. We’ve anticipated this part: The man, Gordon, is dead. No surprises there. It’s when Jean boldly answers his phone for him—suddenly connecting her to the mysterious life and family he left behind—that the story turns into a dark situation comedy crossed with fantasy adventure.

A clever script can make for an easy crutch, but that’s not the case with this Montana Actors Theatre production. Director Michael Butterworth’s imaginative design gives the story even more engaging texture. For instance, when the play begins we hear Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” piped over the speakers as Jean stands in a spotlight half obscured by an umbrella. The light goes out and when it comes back on she’s suddenly standing over a table in the diner. Then darkness. The lights come back on and she’s sitting eating soup out of a bowl. Lights out and then in the next moment she has the bowl up to her face drinking the last of it. Each snapshot plays like a comic book. We see exhibit A, B and C, but how Jean gets to each point is edited out, giving a strangely noir-like effect.

The device isn’t overdone—it appears one more time toward the end, but the dreamlike imagery echoes throughout the production. The point is, you notice the particulars of Butterworth’s light and set direction and they act as an enhancement rather than as an intrusion.

The actors also don’t just rely on the script to guide them. Ann Wright as Mrs. Gottlieb plays passive aggressiveness without a word, and Grant Olson’s Dwight, the brother, balances gracefully between dopey and truly heroic.

Teralyn E. Tanner’s Jean, however, steals the show. With startling ease she shifts naturally from wide-eyed dismay to unabashed tenderness to alarming obsession. Her comedic timing is impeccable—in fact, it’s less in the dialog and more in her facial expressions, hesitations and gestures that we appreciate her character as a mousy but nosey, well-meaning but self-destructive, protagonist.

Seth Bloom ranks just as highly as the dead Gordon, especially as he cleverly nails his monologue halfway through the play. He kneels on the stage, staring audience members in the eye as he talks about how he died, all the while sidetracking into tirades about the childishness of dipping sushi into soy sauce. Jacqueline Davies, too, delivers Hermia, the widow, with exquisite awkwardness and almost Elizabethan iciness, melted only by a martini scene at which time she does an amazing job of sputtering out hysterically blunt remarks about thongs and other less prudish things. And almost nothing beats the “Other Woman” scene as Sarina Hart dramatically applies her lipstick in almost unbearable suspense.

Then there’s the cell phone. Despite its ever-present role, the cell phone becomes a backdrop to all the other details and secrets plaguing Jean and the other characters. But it looms over all the characters, serving in some ways as a soundtrack and showing up more overtly as the prop for a choreographed dance illuminating its sinister hold on everyone. At one point Jean asks with almost chilling resonance, “When something rings you have to answer it, don’t you?”

Fortunately, neither the script nor artistic direction beats any one concept about the cell phone to death, nor does it take itself too seriously. The dialog brims with odd details—a combination of Seinfeld-like observations and those things that you really do say when you’re drunk or nervous or in love but that you forget about until it’s said on a stage, echoing back at you.

Still, it’s not a story you’ve heard before and definitely not one anyone could recognize entirely. It reminds you of other tales where dead men speak, where hell and love are both revealed to be hellish—and hellishly funny—in new and surprising ways.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone continues at the Crystal Theatre Thursday, March 26, through Saturday, March 28, at 8 PM nightly. $10-15.
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