Andrea Acuna as Jean in “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” which runs through Oct. 6 at the Patio Playhouse in Escondido. Courtesy photo
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“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” writing weighs down Patio Playhouse’s production

Patio Playhouse’s black box theater is cozily sequestered into a small corner on Kalmia Street in Escondido. It’s right beneath Clue Avenue escape rooms and neighbors the extinct Vinz Wine Bar. It’s where the Playhouse puts on their adult-oriented plays, seating viewers in a small theater that seats a maximum of 100 people. It’s comfy, minimalist and deserves better material than Sarah Ruhl’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone.”

The show premiered during the penultimate Cruisn’ Grand of 2019 the Playhouse. The play is billed as a dark comedy about a woman, Jean, who starts compulsively answering the phone of Gordon, a man who happened to die right next to her in a café. It is meant to explore modern technology’s paradoxical ability to bring them together and pull them apart.

But the play doesn’t really feel like it wants to elaborate on these themes. Instead, the story feels like an imitator of Fawlty Towers-esque escalation comedy, wherein Jean (for reasons never delved into) decides to tell Gordon’s loved ones an entire stream of lies that end up stringing her along into Gordon’s dark line of work. As the deceptions continue, the trouble Jean finds herself in continues to mount.

Jean herself is not a particularly compelling protagonist. We don’t get much insight into what is motivating her to lie to Gordon’s family, or why she apparently fell in love with a corpse. Her motivations are elusive, and there’s not much reason to root for her, other than perhaps to see how her actions catch up to her.

And the ensuing events surrounding her are not particularly profound or even funny. Whatever thematic commentary on technology is delivered is relatively skin-deep, and it also has the unfortunate distinction of being 12 years old to boot. In this day and age of facial recognition and privacy issues — an essentially post-Snowden world — having Jean tear herself away from her lover to pick up the phone is some pretty surface-level commentary.

Once the play hits act two, it gives some hope that story is going to start going interesting places. It starts off with Matt FitzGerald essentially doing a one-man show for an entire scene, pulling the curtain back on Gordon to reveal what the man does, showing us what Jean’s lies are going to cost her. Then the story starts to play out like a traditional thriller, winning back some good faith it sorely needs. And that promised dark humor even starts coming into focus too — Jean taking some enthusiastic swills of alcohol when the full weight of what she’s done hits her is some nice, subtle humor.

And then the play loses that newly won good faith by going full Twilight Zone toward the end, tossing away the dramatic thread that made it interesting and doing three flips over the figurative shark. The climax, instead of being the culmination, is what tears the play down all over again.

Patio Playhouse did an otherwise good job with their set design, casting decisions and their lighting. Honestly, the usage of lighting was phenomenal, a standout moment being when the lights flare red in tandem to the swelling spasms of Gordon’s fatal heart attack.

Patio Playhouse is more than capable of putting on amazing productions, but this time, they’re let down by source material that’s been turned toothless by time, and without many laughs to give.

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