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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

BTC gives inspiring performance of ‘Dead Man’s Cell Phone’

Published: October 10, 2014
Section: Arts, Etc.

It is clear from the very beginning of “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” that this play wants to say something. Countless bits of dialogue reference the emotional metaphysics of technology and communication and assure us, the audience, we should listen to what it is saying.

“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” tells the story of Jean, who decides to answer the cell phone of a man who has died quietly next to her in a cafe. Jean, played by Samantha Browne-Walters ’15, is a woman who will spin a web of lies to make others feel better. She creates a mental picture of the man, Gordon, which she chooses to honor by answering the phone. This leads her to the man’s dysfunctional family and clandestine job, which teach her about Gordon, as well as love, truth, death and herself.

The Brandeis Theater Company production of the play, directed by Professor Adrianne Krstansky (THA) premiered last night, Oct. 9 in Spingold’s Laurie Theater. The stage was sparsely decorated with hanging lights, and the play’s props were minimal beyond tables and chairs set up by the play’s ensemble. As a result, the audience was drawn more directly to the action of the play itself and its players.

Browne-Walters gives a fantastic performance as the protagonist Jean, portraying the character with an honesty that is both endearing and, in relation to the part’s pathological lying, at times frustrating. The supporting cast is equally compelling. Sarah Brodsky ’15 is both funny and sad as Gordon’s unstable mother, Aaron Fischer ’15 endears as the timid Dwight, and Aliza Sotsky ’15’s honest portrayal of Gordon’s jilted wife drew genuine gasps from the audience.

Jacquelyn Drozdow ’15 provides great comic relief as a mysterious stranger, and Alex Davis ’15 is wonderful as Gordon, embodying the character in a way that fully illustrates his selfishness, despite it being a small role. Krstansky directs the play with a precision that makes use of the minimalist set and simple costumes. The actors are always placed in such a way that the audience’s eyes are drawn to them, and they interact disarmingly realistically. In one scene, two characters are supposed to be in a closet, which is highlighted simply by one spotlight.

Even the actors’ facial expressions seem carefully crafted with a purpose. Overall, the characters are made to feel genuine, emphasized especially through the acting.

Unfortunately, some of the dialogue was lost due to the odd shape of the Laurie Theater, and the fact that I was sat high up and to the side. Without additional microphones, which did not seem to be present, it was sometimes hard to hear what was being said on stage. This was especially noticeable because “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is extremely dialogue-focused, with most if not all of the major plot and character points being delivered through monologues. Several scenes, including a key one in the second act, feature loud music and other sound effects that sometimes overpowered the actors completely. This was only an occasional issue, though. For the most part, I heard the dialogue, and I could always see all of the show.

Where the acting of “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” inspires, the play itself, written by playwright Sarah Ruhl in 2007, fails to deliver on the highlights of the production. Again, the dialogue and plot are always bursting at the opportunity to deliver a statement on a social issue in our modern world. Luckily for the characters in the play, they exist in a world where everyone says exactly what they want others to take away from the play in every word of dialogue. The play is happy to tell us how to think about this and that, and some parts feel more like a lecture than a performance. At the same time, the story throws in some weird twists and turns that are more fit for an action film than a rumination on social interaction in the digital age.

Despite this failing in the show itself, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is brought to life by the Brandeis Theater Company. They manage to inject a not-particularly-interesting story with gravitas using great performances and stylish direction. Enjoyable because of the talent involved and hard work that has clearly gone into the play, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is very worth seeing.

“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” will play Friday night at 8 p.m., two Saturday shows at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. this weekend in the Laurie Theater.