Performers connect poorly in Summer Rep’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone

BY ELLEN HARRIS | JUNE 29, 2009 7:21 AM

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The tall, dark, and textured walls of the set of Dead Man’s Cell Phone evoked a sense of absurdism similar to Alice’s trip down the Rabbit Hole. In Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Alice is represented by Jean, a woman who accidentally answers the dead man’s cell phone and is sucked into the vortex of his miserable and complicated life.

Cell Phone, the second play of Iowa Summer Rep, opened June 26 to a full house.

Kristy Hartsgrove, who played Jean, was vivaciously innocent with an incredible sense of comedic timing: She had the audience laughing from her first line. The same cannot be said of the rest of the cast.

All the performers in Cell Phone can claim seasoned backgrounds in theater, but they just can’t deliver the beauty of featured playwright Sarah Ruhl’s words with the right amount of honesty. Ruhl’s poetic phrasing was lost beneath the individual egos of the actors.

While every actor garnered at least one laugh, the audience was often left wondering when Hartsgrove would reenter the scene.

Granted, Hartsgrove was on-stage for a majority of the time. But moments such as the second scene, in which the dead man’s mother (played by Rachael Lindhart) gave a eulogy, felt forced, with the soliloquy of stilted lines better suited for a fiery Southern preacher than an aging and gaudy widow.

She could have been the perfect Queen of Hearts to Hartsgove’s Alice, but Lindhart couldn’t break the standoffish bubble surrounding her entire performance. '

The dead man himself, played by UI M.F.A. student Anthony Nelson, lost his audience with poor enunciation and officious head-bobbing. As the White Rabbit of the piece, Nelson could have been a slick salesman but instead came off as ill-prepared and uncertain of his character.

Saffron Henke charmed the audience with her Cheshire Cat-like portrayal of the Other Woman. With a fetish for lipstick, high heels, and guns, she gave a nice performance of a rather two-dimensional character.

The remaining two characters (the dead man’s brother, Dwight, and the dead man’s widow, Hermia) could have given more to their roles. Brandon Bruce, a UI M.F.A. student, played Dwight earnestly but with a lack of genuineness. Hermia, as presented by Kristen Behrendt, seemed most likable during her drunken scene, but her Tweedle Dee to Dwight’s Tweedle Dum should have been more Mad Hatter-esque.

Cast performance notwithstanding, the important message of Dead Man’s Cell Phone leaves a discomforting ringing in one’s ear. Ruhl’s statement play on the deadening of interpersonal communication with the advent of new technology had all audience members guiltily shutting off their cell phones and laughing about calls in intermission. In that respect, Hartsgrove and her supporting cast truly delivered, saving the audience from Wonderland — if only for two hours.

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