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THEATER REVIEW: “Dead Man’s Cell Phone" is a "whale of a good time"

Telephones have long been the bane of my existence, so I can identify in more than name with Jean (Jo Anne Glover), a quiet, almost mousy young woman who just wants the phone at the next table to stop ringing.

She’s just finished her soup in a local cafe and has started to write when it begins.

She tries to ignore it. When that becomes impossible, she gets up to confront the phone’s owner. But a look at his face (and his failure to fog a spoon) convince her that he has departed the scene.

But the phone keeps ringing. What to do?

In the odd and wonderful world of Sarah Ruhl’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” she answers it. And thus begins her peculiar relationship with the people in this stranger’s life.

The deceased turns out to be Gordon Gottlieb (Matt Thompson), a man with a frosty dowager of a mother (Kathryn Herbruck), a disarmingly frank wife (Lisel Gorell-Getz), a sexy mistress (Yolanda Franklin), a meek and ignored younger brother (Jonathan Sachs) and a morally suspect job.

Once Jean has answered that phone and told God she is determined to “help the memory of Gordon live on in the minds and hearts of his loved ones,” she’s drawn into a vortex of telling more and more lies in an effort to burnish the memory of this man, increasingly revealed to need help in that department.

Ruhl (whose plays “Eurydice,” “A Clean House” and “In The Next Room, or the vibrator play” have previously been seen here), has a quirky, whimsical sensibility that requires the right directorial touch.

She gets it from Moxie Theatre’s Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, who earlier directed a splendid “Eurydice.” She gives “Cell Phone” just the right combination of lunacy and seriousness, adding visual touches that heighten the humor.

But Ruhl is more than just goofy; she always makes a serious point. Here, she’s considering the ability of the cell phone to both unite and divide. Jean has never had one because “I didn’t want to be there, you know ... Sometimes I like to disappear.” Yet even she is quick to use it both as distancing mechanism and means of connection.

This production boasts spot-on performances all around. Glover is perfect as the waif-like Jean, whom Gordon’s mother describes as “comforting ... like a very small casserole,” and who quickly gets in rather deeper than she meant to.

Thompson’s Gordon – who has a monologue to die for (except that he’s already dead) at the top of the second act – amuses as the smooth talker with a few blots on his behavioral resume.

Herbruck is a wonderfully overbearing and imperious presence as Mrs. Gottlieb, the mother who plays favorites with her children.

Gorell-Getz is a hoot as Gordon’s quirky widow (and former ice skating star) Hermia. Yolanda Franklin almost steals the show as both Gordon’s sexy mistress Carlotta and another stranger.

Sachs is excellent in the least flashy role of mom’s other son Dwight (so named because “mother felt sorry for the name”).

If you’re looking for realism and logic, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is not for you. But for humor, whimsy and a whale of a good time, Moxie is the place to be.

The details

“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” plays through Nov. 6 at Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd., Suite N.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.

For tickets call (858) 598-7620 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.