Should that actually happen, what if someone else answers?
That’s the premise of the play “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Sarah Ruhl and being performed the next two weekends by TheatreWorks of Northern Nevada.
The play’s story centers around Jean, a late-20s urbanite whose lunch is interrupted one day by the incessant ringing of a cell phone. When she tries to get the phone’s owner to answer, she finds that he has answered his final call. Jean assumes responsibility for answering the deceased man’s phone and in so doing becomes entangled in his complex and shady life.
A press release from TheatreWorks describes Ruhl’s play like this: “A work about how we memorialize the dead — and how that remembering changes us — it is the odyssey of a woman forced to confront her own assumptions about morality, redemption, and the need to connect in a technologically obsessed world.”
Being overly concerned with the latest and greatest gizmos is something the audience and the actors can relate to.
“I never had a cell phone,” said Reno resident Jamie Woodham Plunkett, repeating a line by her character, Jean, and stating a fact about her own life. “Now for work I have to have a cell phone on me constantly, all day everywhere I go. Plus, I have my personal cell phone so there’s moments where I have two cell phones, one in each ear.”
Plunkett’s co-star, Bernadette Garcia, who plays the dead man’s mistress, showed contempt for her attachment to the new technology.
“I work for an airline and a lot of times I’m trying to greet someone and they can’t even give me the eye contact to say hello because they’re so busy checking out their smarphone, checking Facebook, checking their text messages, not even to make human contact,” Garcia said. “A lot of times that drives me nuts. I don’t keep (my cell phone) on me all the time. It drives my mother nuts because she wants to be able to reach me 24-7 and I don’t want to be plugged in 24-7.”
In a 2008 review, the Charles Isherwood of the New York Times wrote that Ruhl’s theme is the “paradoxical ability of the title device (and the people who use it) both to unite and isolate. ... The machine in the pocket means that wherever you are present, you are potentially absent too.”
“It’s important that you have that eye contact, that shared space with the person that you’re with,” said Holly Natwora, a Sparks resident and director of the play. “I think we’re getting away from that as a society. It says we’re more connected but we’re actually becoming more isolated because you never have to be in the same room with anybody to get anything done.”
“I find my cell phone very useful. We use it for my family life: two working parents and kids, so we have to have it,” said Mike Austin, a Reno resident who plays the dead man, Gordon Gottlieb, whose life continues after death through his mobile carrier. “I find that very interesting because my character uses it with his family but ... from beyond the grave to stay in touch with people who are still alive. It’s pretty wild.”
The phone itself is a character in the play, Natwora explained. Through it, Jean falls in love with Gordon before she comes to realize the kind of man he really was. Remind anyone of how relationships can be made or broken through an ill-placed emoticon or a sentence that sounds completely different than it was intended when limited to 140 characters?
Through their development of the character, Natwora and Plunkett decided that Jean is an aspiring writer whose imagination carries over into her post-mortem relationship with Gordon.
“(Jean) has a need also to want to connect with people,” Natwora said. “She lives in New York City ... which can be a very isolated place even though there’s 8 million people that live there, and so she lives a sort of lonely life. She doesn’t have many friends or family and she works at a Holocaust museum and deals with memories and all that and so the phone kind of gives her a connection to this family that she wouldn’t normally have.”
Morality also comes into play in the script, Natwora said. If you do something bad but it does good for someone else, is it still bad? Translation: Gordon might have been a crooked guy in life, but does his effect on Jean’s life make it all OK?
“The cell phone is slowly become part of the human anatomy in the modern world,” Austin said, with a veiled reference to a plot twist involving the dead man that I was asked not to reveal.
Performances of “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” will take place March 16, 17, 23 and 24 at 8 p.m. Matinee performances are scheduled for March 18 and 25 at 2 p.m. Ticket prices are $12 for general admission and $10 for seniors and students. For reservations and more information, visit www.twnn.org or call 284-0789.
All performances will be held at the Laxalt Auditorium located in the Nelson Building at 401 W. Second St. in Reno.