Review: 'Dead Man’s Cell Phone' an absurdist comedy

‘Dead Man’s Cell Phone’ is being staged by the Elgin Theatre Company through June 17 at the 
Elgin Art Showcase in Elgin.
‘Dead Man’s Cell Phone’ is being staged by the Elgin Theatre Company through June 17 at the Elgin Art Showcase in Elgin.

The Elgin Theatre Company has been in business for 66 years and its longevity must be credited to production choices. So I applaud the risky undertaking of producing “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” by award-winning Wilmette native Sarah Ruhl under the direction of ETC Board member Linda Collins.

This is an absurdist comedy, and because of the explicit language, it’s meant for mature audiences. There are two acts with multiple scenes of varying length, mostly dark and complex but a few funny moments occur.

All move along fine until we hit the wall of Act 2, specifically a bizarre and confusing scene of how two characters meet in the afterlife (“the pipeline of one’s own planet”) and then one returns to the present. Moreover, Ruhl’s ending is a slapdash, not-very-satisfying completion.

But let me backtrack. “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is a lecture on technology, mortality and explanation of how the cellphone rules our lives and paradoxically both connects and isolates. When the man at the next table in a quiet café fails to answer his incessantly ringing and annoying cellphone, a woman (Jean) answers (“after all, a ringing phone demands to be answered”) and discovers why he can’t – he is truly disconnected; the man is dead.

Jean, a naïve woman (Kim Green), inserts herself into the dead man’s life; in an attempt to keep him “alive” and in an effort to comfort those left behind, she continues to answer his phone and invents well-intentioned lies, becoming more and more entangled. Green is a facially expressive actress and maintains curiosity and anxiety throughout; she is rarely offstage.

William Petersen is Gordon, the shady, yet charismatic dead man. His delivery of the lobster bisque/compassionate obfuscation monologue at the beginning of Act 2 is insightful, delightful and adds a clarification of this comedy’s complexity. Petersen is a standout. Equally comparable is Edward. 

Duncan as Dwight, the nerdy, overlooked hiccup-calming brother and romantic interest. Both Petersen and Duncan are consistent in their character portrayals and have welcomed nuanced vocal skills. 

The supporting ensemble is composed of the very fine Marina Dudanova as the femme fatale mistress and business partner; Debbie Fowler as the sad, estranged inebriated wife, Hermia; and Marilyn House as Gordon’s mother.

There are two other uncredited performers: the red rain-coated, selfie-taking umbrella girl (sadly often in the dark) and the rain-coated older gentleman.

The set (design by Jon Kramp and Andrew Ross) is sparse, bare-boned and utilitarian; the props are deliberately minimalist (watch out for the ribbons of flesh and sticky note blanket). Brilliant sound effects and music (Jon Kramp, John Marshall and Linda Collins) carry the show as do the exquisite clear projections of varied settings. Crew and actors change the scenes in full view of the actors. 

Yet despite the attractiveness and intriguing surrealism of this production, there are some serious flaws which bear immediate correcting: the inconsistent pacing, timing and lighting (many of the actors are unlit or missed), and the very obvious over-the-top acting – although I’m not certain if that particular flaw is due to director’s choice, actor’s weakness or playwright dictates. There also is an opportunity for a campy, fun fight scene that was missed. With tightening and sharpening, the potential is very much there for an even, quality production. (I saw “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” on its second night).

ETC’s performance space is intimate: the 72 seats never are more than an arm’s extension from an actor. It works for this production and perhaps assists in the exasperating and often startling leaps the audience is asked to make. Incredibly, not one audience member’s cellphone went off during the performance and at the end, people actually were talking to each other and slow to check their phones. And in these times, that’s an evocative accomplishment.

• Regina Belt-Daniels is a working actress and director who began her career onstage in 1985 at the Woodstock Opera House. Formerly serving on the Raue Center for the Arts Board, she also is a lifetime member of TownSquare Players and a retired District 47 teacher.


Through June 17

Two acts with one intermission

Tickets: $18 adults, $15 seniors

Elgin Art Showcase

8th floor, 164 Division St. Elgin


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