It’s rare to witness that unique combination of themes such as technological obsession, the search for true love and the business of organ trafficking in the same show. Somehow, Burlington County Footlighters melded these disparate concepts in their production of Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone. Under the direction of theatre guru extraordinaire, Dennis Doherty, they did an exceptional job in the process.
Mr. Doherty’s choice for his latest project didn’t surprise me. It featured a host of really unusual and quirky characters. The ensemble reminded me a bit of roles in The Drowsy Chaperone; in which this summer at the Maple Shade Arts Council Mr. Doherty played the Man in the Chair. This time he swapped that seat for the director’s chair. When I attended the opening night performance on November 4, 2016, it made me glad he did.
For those who haven’t guessed from the dramatis personae, the playwright crafted an atypical story for this 2006 work. Ironically, it opened with a very relatable scene all too ubiquitous in the modern world. While sitting in a café, Jean (played by Alex Davis) became annoyed by a cell phone ringing behind her. When the man (Matt Dell’Olio) ignored her entreaties to answer it, she removed it from his pocket and responded for him. In the process of speaking, she discovered he was dead. After reporting his death, she opted to keep his phone and continue answering his calls. In the process she became acquainted with his brother (also played by Matt Dell’Olio), his mother (played by Jenny Scudder), his widow (played by Amanda Lizzio) and a business associate (played by Danica Harvey). Each of these individuals seemed in competition for who could be the most eccentric.
I’ve seen Alex Davis play numerous supporting roles. (She’s also a veteran of The Drowsy Chaperone.) I enjoyed watching her take the lead role in this one. It required her to carry the show and she met the challenge. Since her character didn’t know anything about the dead man, she had to talk her way through conversations with people who knew him intimately. This resulted in some awkward discussions. It’s never easy to ameliorate nervous tension through comedy, but she did so like a true theatrical professional.
Ms. Davis is very expressive with a strong aptitude for non-verbal communication. I liked the way she opened the performance by raising an eyebrow while the cell phone in the café increasingly annoyed her. She did a nice job displaying confusion while trying to explain to Gordon’s (the dead man’s) family that she worked for him in “incoming.” At the time neither the character nor the audience knew that he facilitated organ trafficking.
Matt Dell’Olio played dual roles in this show. His performance captured the essences of both the cunning narcissistic dead man as well as his timid awkward brother, Dwight. He brilliantly delivered the dead man’s soliloquy to open Act II. In the speech, the character explained how he pursued a selfish, self-absorbed existence motivated by personal gain. His speaking technique made me feel like I was listening to Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” oration. That’s quite an achievement under any circumstance. It’s even more remarkable because of the content.
I liked how Mr. Dell’Olio transformed into the timid Dwight; in some instances after playing Gordon in the preceding scene. He got into character by slouching and through some graceless laughing. With measured precision he developed a socially awkward character into Jane’s love interest.
The supporting performers portrayed their characters in ways that enhanced the play. Jenny Scudder nailed the role of the overly dramatic mother, Mrs. Gottleib. I found Amanda Lizzio’s rendition of Gordon’s widow as intoxicating as her character was intoxicated. Danica Harvey created a wonderful sense of mystery regarding Gordon’s “other woman.”
Jim Frazier did awesome work with both the set and lighting design. The contrast between the light blue and black colors underneath the multicolored lights created a very unique effect: both simple and yet abstract; just like the play itself. The combination enhanced the unusual nature of the story.
Sarah Ruhl wrote a very cerebral text for this piece. It required a lot of thought to absorb its nuances and themes. At times during the show the air conditioner activated and made it difficult to hear the performers. (Yes, even those of us in South Jersey need air conditioning in November from time-to-time.) It also distracted me from contemplating the show’s complexities. Given the choice between feeling cool and hearing the performance, I would’ve preferred the latter. Iggy Pop bled for his art. I’m willing to shed some sweat for Footlighters’.
I saw Dennis Doherty on his cell phone after the performance. That showed me just how into this project he is. Judging from the laughter and applause, I’d have to say the audience was even more into it than he. Then again no one can accuse anybody associated with the performance of phoning it in. See it no later than November 19th. After that Dead Man’s Cell Phone goes dead at Footlighters and redial won’t be available.