Aaron Lockman is an actor and playwright. Credits include Metropolis Theatre, Citadel Theatre, Eclectic Full Contact Theatre, the side project, Surging Films and Theatrics, and The Living Room. His plays have been seen at The Theater at Monmouth, Mary's Attic, Prop Theatre, and Columbia College. Aaron also writes reviews with Rescripted.org. You can hear his voice on the podcast The Audio Diary of Aaron Lockman, or on the audiobooks Surviving Hitler, Locke and Key, and The X-Files: Cold Cases. You might also have seen him narrating sky shows at the Adler Planetarium. Aaron enjoys walking dogs, playing with Legos, talking excitedly about astronomy, and making annoying puns. http://aaronlockman.com
Pictured: Bryan Breau and Cydney Moody. Photo by Paul Goyette.
by Aaron Lockman
When you enter the theater to see DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE, you are greeted by a lovely, dizzying set from Sydney Achler; a series of shuffling, dark black-and-green panels that travel down each side of the stage to form a sort of vortex at the back. This, plus subtle and understated lighting design from Mike McShane, contributes well to the show’s dark, disturbing, never-really-sure-what’s-going-on atmosphere.
As the play opens, our protagonist, Jean (Cydney Moody), is sitting in a coffee shop – and there is a man sitting at another table (played by a delightfully creepy and precise Bryan Breau). He is staring straight at her, and he isn’t moving, and his cell phone is ringing. After polite requests, impolite requests, and outright shouting all fail to elicit a reaction from the man, she answers his ringing phone in frustration. And in doing so, she is pulled into a surreal, strange, and often downright unpleasant plot concerning the dead man’s mother (played with impeccable stylish grace by Caroline Dodge Latta), his grieving wife (a mess of nerves and angst played hilariously by Lynnette Li), his suspiciously calm and happy brother (an earnest and boyish Mike Newquist), and a series of increasingly mysterious strangers who all seem to know more than they let on – all played with quiet, smiling menace by Valeria Rosero.
Discussing how this play made me feel is a strange task, and is going to be difficult without spoilers, but here we go. This play. . . never goes where you think it will, which saves and damns it in equal measure.
From the setup, you would expect Jean to be a sort of audience-insert viewpoint character – an otherwise normal person who gets swept up into a strange and dangerous plot. And this is true to some extent, but neither the actor, director, or script takes any pains to make Jean particularly relatable. Cydney Moody plays Jean with an almost religious sort of reverence. Right from the first scene, she is fascinated by the corpse, whose name we soon learn is Gordon. She deliberately lies to Gordon’s family about how close they were in order to ingratiate herself with them. And when darker things about his life begin to surface, she seems almost excited rather than scared.
I think it’s safe to say that this is a very different reaction than you or I might have if placed in Jean’s situation. It doesn’t seem entirely human. And this isn’t bad; in fact it’s largely what makes the show compelling. It’s almost as if Jean knows she is a character in a fiction and is dedicated to making that fiction as exciting and dark as possible. And as a result she seeks out conflict, rather than de-escalating it like a normal human.
But it gels, because we’re not really watching normal humans. Just like the last Comrades show I reviewed, BOB: A LIFE IN FIVE ACTS, the dialogue here skews heightened, and characters speak mostly in exposition and philosophical observations about life.
Which doesn’t feel like it should work. But it does here, more so than in BOB, and I am not sure why. The actors have a clear command over playwright Sara Ruhl’s language, which helps. But mostly, I think Ruhl’s sharp observations give this work a better drive, and feel far more pressing and urgent to our current world.
This play premiered in 2006, before the iPhone completely changed what cell phones can do. The actors onstage hold flip phones and can basically only make phone calls with them. But it’s surprising how many paradigms from then still ring true (heh).
Caroline Latta has a fantastic monologue as Mrs. Gottlieb, giving the eulogy at her son’s funeral as a cell phone in the audience goes off. Theatre and church, she says, are the only spaces left where we are not constantly accompanied by our phones, and now even churches aren’t safe! She asks the audience to raise their hand if they have ever brought their cell phone into the toilet with them. “I thought so,” she says coldly after a moment.
At one point, Jean observes that she never even had a phone before discovering Gordon’s body. She didn’t want to feel constantly available, she says. But now? She feels needed.
I walked into the theatre that night with 10% battery left on my phone. But you know what I did after the show was over? I went to the bathroom. And I scrolled through Tumblr on the toilet. Then I pumped a podcast directly into my ears, got on the Red Line, and scrolled some more until my phone died. And then for the rest of the train ride, I stared at the walls, hopelessly, endlessly bored.
This show avoids the monotonous baby-boomer assertion of “Ugh, you kids these days, always on your phones!” by predating it altogether. Instead, it posits something much darker, by comparing Jean’s utter fascination with Gordon to a deeply ingrained, oft-unspoken human desire to always want what’s worst for us. The more unpleasant and disturbing Gordon’s shadow becomes, the more Jean wishes to be pulled into it. Real humans don’t want conflict in their lives in the big, specific way Jean wants it – but we do want it in smaller ways. The ubiquity of cell phones, and later of social media, is addicting because we want connection. We are scared at lack of connection, and so we gravitate towards something that we know is bad for us in excess. And part of the reason it feels so nice. . . is because it’s so bad. As toxic as social media is, it is a known fact that people who talk about how happy they are since they’ve cut out social media are the most annoying thing ever. Because misery loves company, and on Twitter misery and company are the same thing.
These grave observations are partially undone by an ending that feels much too storybook and happy, and clashes violently with the rest of the play’s tone. But regardless, there is plenty to love here. DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE gets depressingly dark, darkly hilarious, and hilariously weird. You might not always like how it gets there, but it will certainly keep you on your toes as to how.
DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE runs through March 10. For more information visit the-comrades.com.