Sara Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, like her modern retelling of Eurydice — artfully directed by Jeff Mills at UCSB in 2013 — moves from normal everyday happenings to the fantastical, interspersing humor with poignancy in its themes of death and loss. Sharp and witty, it provides a compelling view of someone becoming intimately involved with the family and friends of a person she’s never met — who has, in fact, died — by answering his phone.
Katie Laris’ sure direction and a stellar ensemble cast bring this intriguing and highly entertaining story to life.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone by The Theatre Group at SBCC plays through May 2 at SBCC’s Jurkowitz Theatre. Click here for more information.
Jenna Scanlon is superb as Jean, a well-meaning woman who stumbles into a whole other reality when she answers a stranger’s phone in a café one day. A seasoned actor excelling at both comedy and drama, here Scanlon’s humor is subtle, as she mainly plays “straight man” to the bizarre goings-on around her.
Brian Harwell plays Gordon, the titular dead man. When we do finally get a chance to “meet” him in the second act, he reveals himself to be a fascinating character, though less than noble. Harwell is excellent here, bringing to mind a different Gordon, once played by Michael Douglas.
Kathy Marden is satisfyingly eccentric as Gordon’s mother, prone to grand proclamations and sweeping gestures. While generally stern, she inexplicably takes a liking to Jean, telling her, “You’re very comforting, like a small casserole. Has anyone ever told you that?” Marden’s comic timing is sharp and her delivery is delightful.
As her oft-forgotten other son, Justin Stark brings a refreshing realness to the role. He is eccentric, too, but unlike his mother, his quirks are small and quiet — he works in a stationery store and eschews technology. He is used to being ignored, but when Jean enters their world, he senses a kindred spirit and a sweet romance blossoms.
Shannon Saleh is fantastic as the dead man’s widow. Coiffed and dressed to the nines at dinner in the first act, she is proper, with a biting wit. But later when she meets Jean at a bar — and has had a hefty head start on cocktails — she is much more, shall we say, loose. Saleh is hilarious here, with a genius ability to play comically drunk.
New to the Santa Barbara stage is Leona Paraminski. Sultry, lithe and mysterious, she is at once luminous and menacing as Carlotta, Gordon’s mistress with a hidden agenda. There is also an impressive climactic comic tussle between her and Jean, choreographed by Mills.
Effective and evocative set design by Francois-Pierre Couture features a spare set with gauzy white floor-to-ceiling curtains. Well-choreographed set changes by stage crew all in white add to the other-worldly atmosphere.
Don’t miss this funny, touching, thought-provoking production. And be sure to turn off your cell phone!
— Justine Sutton is a Santa Barbara freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer. The opinions expressed are her own.