Saturday, March 21, 2009

Mosaic Theatre: Dead Man's Cell Phone [4 reviews]

Earlier this season, Mosaic Theatre announced that they would replace David Mamet's A Life in the Theater with Sara Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone.

Ruhl's plays are rarely produced in South Florida, and Artistic Director Richard Jay Simon not only landed a new play by a leading playwright, but also the actress whom inspired a leading character in the play. Those opportunities don't come along every day, and Simon was wise to seize the moment.

Norm Johnson directs a cast including Polly Noonan, Barbarba Bradshaw, Deborah L. Sherman, Jim Ballard, Erin Joy Schmidt, and Antonio Amadeo.

The play opened February 26 and runs through March 22.

Hap Erstein reviewed for Palm Beach Arts Paper, and published the day before closing:
In Mosaic Theatre’s production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone, much-touted playwright Sarah Ruhl is also in a similar mood to the one she struck in The Clean House, the quirky comedy with intimations of mortality that she made her area debut with at the Caldwell Theatre two years ago.

But unfortunately, both works have intriguing premises that draw an audience in before losing their way and failing to make much of a point.

The leap of faith Ruhl asks us to take with Jean is believing that she then feels compelled to become the unknown corpse’s personal answering service, pocketing the phone and taking his subsequent calls.

Offbeat would be an understatement for Jean, but somehow Polly Noonan, who originated the role in Washington in 2007, makes her nervous insecurities endearing. Also a standout is Jim Ballard as Gordon, who gets the opportunity to have his say in the second act, even though he is deceased.
Christine Dolen reviewed it for the Miami Herald:
It's a play that seems to glide and float, even though it deals with morality, betrayal and that heaviest of subjects, death.

That graceful, funny treatment of issues that cut to the bone is pure Ruhl. And it helps make the dazzlingly acted production of Dead Man's Cell Phone at Plantation's Mosaic Theatre must-see art for anyone who craves both style and substance from a theatrical experience.

She found that director Norm Johnson had things well in hand, but found that Set Designer Sean McClelland had a rare miss. He was working on Les Miserable at Actors' Playhouse at the same time as this production, so perhaps the prolific designer was stretched a little too thin this time.

She had lots to say about the performances:

It is an enormous boon to the production to have Polly Noonan, whom Ruhl imagined in the leading role when she wrote the play, returning to the role of Jean, a woman who plunges into a dead man's world when she answers his insistently ringing cellphone. But there is no qualitative disparity between Noonan's work and the performances by the rest of the cast, which includes some of South Florida's finest actors.

Bradshaw's Mrs. Gottlieb is a hilarious, grieving, booze-swilling ''monster'' who mentions to Jean -- as an incredulous-but-used-to-it Dwight looks on -- that Gordon was her ''only son.'' When we get to hear from Gordon, speaking from the other side of the divide between life and death, Ballard makes him both cocky and undeniably charismatic. Sherman is riotously funny when, as the thoroughly soused Hermia, she tells Jean in way too much detail about the tricks she used to achieve sexual satisfaction with Gordon. Chic and mysterious, Schmidt's mistress is the anti-Jean. And Amadeo makes the tender Dwight Jean's endlessly caring male counterpart.

Bill Hirschman reviewed it for the Sun-Sentinel. (And I hope they keep this up; all these plays deserve a Sentinel review and not a re-tread).

If the nonsense of Lewis Carroll and the phantasmagoria of Tony Kushner could produce a love child, it would likely look like the delightfully absurd daffiness of Sarah Ruhl's philosophical farce Dead Man's Cell Phone at the Mosaic Theatre.

Guest director Norm Johnson is usually in perfect sync with the unsync-able mad tea party that Ruhl has created.

Noonan, a pal of Ruhl's who played the role twice before, deftly disappears inside this awkward Candide with crossed eyes and reedy pleading voice who aches to be needed and loved.

The supporting cast (including Antonio Amadeo, Jim Ballard and Erin Joy Schmidt) is first rate, but honor is due the imperious batty doyenne created by Barbara Bradshaw and Promethean Theatre's Deborah L. Sherman, whose rigidly angry wife loosens under the influence of crimson liqueur into a hilarious monster awash in sloppy self-pity.

Brandon K. Thorp reviewed it for the Broward/Palm Beach New Times:
Philosophical question: If a play includes a character so annoying that it becomes unwatchable, is it still a good play?

I'm all for "challenging" theater. I'm just not convinced the challenge should lie in not ripping off your ears every time an actress opens her mouth. Jean(Polly Noonan) squirms and simpers and stalls and squirms some more before every little fib, and she does it all in a horrible squeak of a voice.

Jean's nauseating existence is made somewhat palatable by a lovely all-white set from scene designer Sean McClelland and an ensemble cast of SoFla's finest. Those who play Gordon's family and associates — Antonio Amadeo, Erin Joy Schmidt, Deborah L. Sherman, and especially Barbara Bradshaw — deliver inspired performances that make you wonder what a marvelous little family drama this could have been if only (the dead man) had set his phone to "vibrate" when sitting down to eat.

Dead Man's Cell Phone plays at Mosaic Theatre through March 22.

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