Reviewed by Judy Richter
Having finished her lunch, a woman quietly reads her book in a cafe. Her concentration is broken by the ringing of a cell phone belonging to the man sitting across from her. They're the only people there. Finally, she can't stand it any more. She asks him to answer his phone. He doesn't respond. Annoyed, she goes over to him and discovers he's dead. She answers his phone. Thus begins the woman's strange journey in Sarah Ruhl's "Dead Man's Cell Phone," presented by SF Playhouse.
Each time the woman, Jean (Amy Resnick), answer Gordon's (Bill English) phone, she finds herself more entwined in the lives of the people in his life. The lies she tells them to make them feel better about he felt about them just get her in deeper.She soon learns he wasn't such a fine fellow, but somehow she's fascinated. Ultimately, her journey, with all its absurdist turns, allows her to blossom from an introverted, 39-year-old spinster into a woman who knows more about herself and life and who finds love.
Resnick strikes all the right notes in Jean's journey, making her a likeable, believable character. Likewise, Jackson Davis as Gordon's younger brother, Dwight, captures his sweetness and sincerity, making him a good match with Resnick's Jean. The other characters don't fare quite so well. English's long monologue at the beginning of Act 2 becomes tiresome. Both Florentina Mocanu as Carlotta, Gordon's mistress, and Rachel Klyce as Hermia, his wife, seem a bit outsized, but not so much as Joan Mankin, who plays Gordon's mother, Mrs. Gottlieb. Her histrionics are over the top, a result that can be pinned at least in part on director Susi Damilano, for Mankin has proved herself to be one of the Bay Area's most talented actors in role after role.
English, the company's artistic director, also designed the versatile set, well-lighted by Kurt Landisman. The music and sound are by Cliff Caruthers, the character-appropriate costumes by Mark Koss.
Despite the uneven acting, the 2006 play works in large part because of Resnick and Davis. The playwright also gives us food for thought as she looks at the way that cell phones and other electronic devices have changed the way -- perhaps not for the better -- that people communicate with each other.