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Dead Man's Cell Phone

Plot Synopsis and Themes of Sarah Ruhl's Play


I am writing this review five years after Sarah Ruhl wrote her surrealistic comedy, Dead Man's Cell Phone. It doesn't seem dated yet. If anything, the messages seem to become more relevant. Most of us are still addicted to our smart phones. A few of us, like myself, have narrowly escaped the trap of text messaging and twitter obsessions. And yet, here I am, using an I-pad to write this very article, and before I finish it, I will probably check my email and Facebook a few times, just to make sure I haven't missed anything important. We live in an age with these seemingly magical devices that promise constant connection yet leave many of us feeling stranded.

First Productions:

Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone was first performed in June 2007 by the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. In March 2008 it premiered both in New York via Playwrights Horizons and Chicago via Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

The Basic Plot:

Jean (unmarried, no children, approaching 40, an employee at the Holocaust museum) is innocently sitting at a cafe when a man's cell phone rings. And rings. And keeps on ringing. The man doesn't answer because, as the title suggests, he's dead. Jean, however, does pick up, and when she discovers that the cell phone owner has quietly died in the cafe, she not only dials 911, she keeps his phone in order to keep him alive in a strange yet significant way. She takes messages from the dead man's business associates, friends, family members, even his mistress.

Things get even more complicated when Jean goes to the funeral of Gordon (the dead guy), pretending to be a former co-worker. Wanting to bring closure and a sense of fulfillment to others, Jean creates confabulations (I'd call them lies) about Gordon's last moments. The more we learn about Gordon the more we realize he was a terrible person who loved himself far more than anyone else in his life. However, Jean's imaginative reinvention of his character brings peace to Gordon's family.

The play takes its most bizarre turn when Jean discovers the truth about Gordon's career: he was a broker for illegal sale of human organs. At this point, a typical character would probably back off and say, "I'm way over my head." But Jean, bless her eccentric heart, is far from typical, and so she flies to South Africa in order to donate her kidney as a sacrifice for Gordon's sins.

My Expectations:

Normally, when I'm writing about the characters and themes of a play, I leave my personal expectations out of the equation. However, in this case, I should address my bias because it will have an impact on the rest of this analysis. Here goes:

There are a handful of plays that, before I read them or watch them, I make certain not to learn anything about them. August: Osage County was one example. I purposely avoided reading any reviews because I wanted to experience it on my own. The same held true for Dead Man's Cell Phone. All I knew about it was the basic premise. What an awesome idea!

It had been on my list 2008, and this month I finally got to experience it. I have to admit, I was disappointed. The surrealistic goofiness doesn't work for me the way it works in Paula Vogel's The Baltimore Waltz. As an audience member, I want to witness realistic characters characters in bizarre situations, or at the very least bizarre characters in realistic situations. Instead, Dead Man's Cell Phone offers a strange, Hitchcockian premise and then populates the storyline with silly characters who occasionally say smart things about modern society. But the sillier things get, the less I want to listen to them.

In surrealism (or quirky farces) readers shouldn't expect believable characters; generally the avant garde is about the mood, the visuals, and the symbolic messages. I'm all for that, don't get me wrong. Unfortunately, I had constructed these unfair expectations that didn't match the play Sarah Ruhl had created. (So now I should just shut up and watch North by Northwest again.)

Themes of "Dead Man's Cell Phone":

Misguided expectations aside, there's much to discuss in Ruhl's play. The themes of this comedy explore America's post-millenial fixation with wireless communication. Gordon's funeral service is interrupted twice by ringing cell phones. Gordon's mother bitterly observes, "You'll never walk alone. That's right. Because you'll always have a machine in your pants that might ring." The majority of us are so anxious to pick up as soon as our BlackBerry vibrates or a funky ringtone erupts from our iPhone. Are we craving a specific message? Why are we so inclined to interrupt our daily lives, maybe even thwart an actual conversation in "real time" in order to satisfy our curiosity about that next text message? During on of the cleverest moments in the play, Jean and Dwight (Gordon's nice-guy brother) are falling for each other. However, their blossoming romance is in jeopardy because Jean cannot stop answering the dead man's cell phone.

Body Brokers:

Now that I have experienced the play first hand, I've been reading the many positive reviews. I've noticed that all of the critics laud the obvious themes about "the need to connect in a technology obsessed world." However, not too many reviews have paid sufficient attention to the most disturbing element of the storyline: the open market (and often illegal) trade of human remains/organs. In her acknowledgements, Ruhl thanks Annie Cheney for writing her investigative expose book, Body Brokers. This non-fictional book offers a disturbing look at a profitable and morally reprehensible underworld.

Ruhl's character Gordon is part of that underworld. We learn that he made a fortune by finding people willing to sell a kidney who $5000, while he obtained fees of over $100,000. He is also involved with organ sales from recently executed Chinese prisoners. And to make Gordon's character even more loathsome, he's not even an organ donor! As if to balance Gordon's selfishness with her altruism, Jean presents herself as a sacrifice, stating that: "In our country we can only give our organs away for love." She is willing to risk her life and give up a kidney so that she can reverse Gordon's negative energy with her positive outlook on humanity.

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