Sarah Ruhl’s dark comedy Dead Man’s Cell Phone is currently showing in Falls Church by NOVA Nightsky Theater Company. Producing Director and Co-Founder Jaclyn Robertson stated that the company’s goal is to present unconventional works in unconventional places, and Dead Man’s Cell Phone is exactly that.
A young woman is sitting in a cafe, trying to ignore (with growing impatience) another patron’s incessant ringing phone, only to realize that the person is dead. Compulsion causes her to answer the phone, introducing her to other people in the man’s life and compelling her to make it her goal to help everyone find peace in his passing.
Director Hannah Ruth Wellons along with Adam Ressa designed the production, including set, sound, lighting, and projection. The theater space is a small room, with a curtain on one side to shield the offstage actors, a table in the back for the light and sound boards, two rows of chairs stretching the length of the room, leaving the remaining 300 or so square feet as the stage. Two tables and several chairs make their way on and off stage to resemble a cafe, a dinner table, and other spare but comfortably intimate spaces. There is also a screen upstage center that displays projections of various backdrops to add to the realness of the scene. Late in the first act, the screen rolls up to reveal a small hidden alcove representing the inside of a stationery store.
Keely Sullivan Den Bergh plays Jean, the unfortunate woman who encounters the deceased Gordon (Chris D’Angelo). Bergh is delightful as the quirky, socially awkward Jean. She carries the first 15 minutes of the show as she realizes that the man with the ringing phone has passed on. The evolution of her thoughts is a treat to watch on her face, as she is the only speaking actor on the stage and there are many moments of quiet — the eerily motionless D’Angelo is as silent as the dead. Pun intended.
Jessie Roberts is Gordon’s mom, Harriet. Harriet is an odd duck as is immediately evident from her bizarre eulogy at Gordon’s funeral. The speech is shockingly blunt with a tendency toward stream of consciousness in her rambling, yet Roberts manages to make the narcissistic mother downright likable and even charming in her idiosyncrasies.
Gordon’s brother, Dwight (Drew Cannady), is the proverbial second pea in Jean’s pod. The two meet when Jean is invited by Harriet to dine with the family. Cannady is endearingly humble, gentle, and kind as the overlooked brother — painfully highlighted by his mother’s mournful cry that her only child, Gordon, is gone.
Hermia (Danielle Taylor), Gordon’s widow, is also at the dinner and the tension between the gathering is not one of a loving family. Taylor plays the quiet and subdued wife at first, but later on (after having several drinks) she opens up and shares some rather racy and food-for-therapy anecdotes about her sex life with Gordon. Taylor expresses the sad desperation of trying to be something you’re not for the person you’re married to but never being enough.
Rounding out the small cast is Jacqueline Youm as Carlotta and The Stranger. Youm exudes sex and confidence, with an air of mystery, and it becomes apparent that she is Gordon’s mistress.
There are many lovely moments in the show where decency and compassion are beautifully displayed, such as when Jean takes Gordon’s hand in hers, deciding to sit and wait with this dead body as the ambulance arrives. Bergh shows Jean’s humanity. She has no idea who this man was, but her heart aches for the others in his life who will soon be suffering and does the only thing she can do, not let him be alone.
Cannady’s Dwight and Bergh’s Jean bond over their love of stationery; the chemistry is natural and their pleasing personalities complement each other perfectly. The two sit on the floor of the store Dwight works at and affectionately feel the various types of paper and embossment on the pages. It is a lovely scene that illustrates the simple sweetness of connecting with another human who makes you feel seen and understood.
Despite the somber title, the show is surprisingly funny. Ruhl’s writing gives great depth to each of the characters and the entire cast breathes genuine life into the eccentric characters, allowing for countless moments of levity, pure awkwardness, and amusing psychosis that juxtapose the dark moroseness of the story.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a thought-provoking show, highlighting the means by which technology has connected people in unexpected ways, while also creating distraction and at times dividing people.
NOVA Nightsky Theater’s production is well done and performed with true heart and dedication. I look forward to seeing more of what this talented group has to offer.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, with one 10-minute intermission.
The program for Dead Man’s Cell Phone is online here.
Covid Policy: “Because our space is small and our actors are unmasked, we strongly encourage masking during the show.”
Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl
Jean: Keely Sullivan Den Bergh; Gordon: Chris D’Angelo; Harriet: Jessie Roberts; Hermia: Danielle Taylor; Dwight: Drew Cannady; Carlotta/The Stranger: Jacqueline Youm
TECH & CREATIVE TEAM
Direction: Hannah Ruth Wellons; Production Design (Set/Sound/Lights/Projection): Adam Ressa, Hannah Ruth Wellons; Sounds and Projection Consultant: Jon Roberts; Sound Projections Operators: Sophie Atiyeh, Ward Kay; Set Decor & Props: Steph Black, Hannah Ruth Wellons, Adam Ressa, Keely Sullivan Den Bergh, Rebecca Kalant; Costumes: Jaclyn Robertson, Hannah Ruth Wellons; Design & Technical Director: Adam Ressa; Artistic Director: Ward Kay; Producing Director: Jaclyn Robertson