‘Dead Man’s Cell Phone’ grapples with tech obsession


Author: Kevin Liu


On the stage, a woman scribbles a letter and a man sits perfectly still — dead still, in fact. Patrons file into Keck Theater, and eventually, the lights dim and the audience takes one last look at their cellphones before silencing them for what seems like a lifetime.

On stage, the man’s cellphone rings. The stage is set as a cafe, with the woman at one table and the man slumped over at another. The phone rings again. The woman stares the man down, as if to silence the phone with her gaze. The phone rings yet again. This time, the woman has had enough. She stands up from her chair and confronts the man. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the man is not simply being negligent. The man is dead.

“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” ran at Keck Theater Nov. 5–8. The title of the production refers to the cellphone belonging to the dead man named Gordon, played by Cooper Raiff (first year). Jean, the woman in the cafe played by Grace West (senior), feels compelled to continue Gordon’s legacy despite never having met him. Jean starts by answering his phone calls and eventually winds up entrenched in the dead man’s life. Gordon’s cellphone becomes Jean’s own personal possession, but the cellphone ends up possessing her. In essence, the play is a dark comedy that highlights the hold cellphones have over their users.

The cast is made up of five different actors playing six roles. The entire cast includes the two leads, Amanda Wagner (senior) as Gordon’s mother Mrs. Gottlieb, Kylie Brakeman (junior) as Gordon’s mistress and Hazel Hering (sophomore) as Gordon’s wife Hermia. The play is written by Sarah Ruhl and was directed by Larry Biederman.

The set was minimalist and consisted of two tables, four chairs, a cellphone and a movable piece in the background. There were no stagehands; the actors moved all of the pieces into place before their scenes.

Painted floorboards that decreased in size created the illusion that the stage stretched into the distance, paper lights hung from the ceiling and a moveable set piece, which swung like a door, commanded the center of the stage. The set transitioned from a cafe to a dining room to an airport — all with the dim of the stage lights. The airport scene was particularly imaginative, with the paper lights strobing away from the audience as if to light the way for a plane’s take off. The production was simple, but the performances were intricate and thought-provoking.

“I thought it was really eye-opening; it dove into a bunch of deep topics like the repercussions of digital communication and interactions with cellphones,” Bradley Calder (senior) said. “The second act they throw you another twist of what happens when you die.”

The scenes leading up to the intermission humorously introduce Dwight, Gordon’s younger brother, also played by Raiff, at a family dinner. He develops a relationship with Jean, which provides commentary on the attachments people have to their cellphones.

“As [Jean] gets more comfortable with the phone and with lying, she kind of gains confidence and has this purpose,” West said. “Our phones give us an identity and a purpose which I think that Sarah Ruhl is trying to comment on.”

The performance changed drastically after the intermission. The ending incorporates surrealist aspects as Jean visits Gordon in the afterlife, then somehow comes back to life. Though the barrier between realism and fantasy is blurred toward the end, Ruhl’s message rings clear.

While the common complaint about smartphones is that they are isolating people from their surroundings, Ruhl also highlights the paradoxical nature of cellphones. The phone brings Jean and Dwight together, but it also isolates Jean from reality, sending her on a path of lying and deceit. The paradoxical nature of cellphones can both isolate people from one another and unite people together. The choice is in the beholder.

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