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Review: 'Dead Man's Cell Phone' short on comedy

"Dead Man's Cell Phone"
Thomasin Savaiano, left, and David Maga perform in "Dead Man's Cell Phone" at Wayside Theatre. Courtesy photo (Buy photo)

By John Horan Jr. - jhoran@nvdaily.com

MIDDLETOWN -- The mere title "Dead Man's Cell Phone" is sure to pique interest, but Sarah Ruhl's challenging dark comedy at Wayside Theatre is more dark than comedic.

The incessant ringing of the cell phone prompts a woman in a cafe to approach the owner. Discovering that he is dead, she answers the phone and, over the course of the play, keeps answering it. Her curiosity leads her to meet his family and his mistress and delve into his rather unsavory business. Along the way she makes up details about his life and death and even claims to have been his co-worker.

While it's understandable that she would react to the annoying phone and would be aghast at his death, it's a stretch for her to answer the call and immediately start spinning tales. Moreover, it further strains credulity that she would continue to probe deeper into this netherworld.

Still, the skewed premise would wash if Ruhl succeeded in forging a humorous concoction of odd characters in off-the-wall settings, the stuff of farce. Unfortunately, although the situations in "Dead Man's Cell Phone" are often bizarre and some of the characters peculiar, comical sparks seldom fly in this production, directed by Warner Crocker.

Ruhl loves to shock and be provocative -- her "In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)" was a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize -- but the mix in this "Dead Man's Cell Phone" never achieves frothiness and the dialog can descend into vulgarity, the last refuge of foundering comedy.

Thomasin Savaiano capably plays the curious Jean. Ricky Hesson rises from the dead to deliver a vigorous, scabrous monologue. As the beta brother, David Maga is the only sympathetic character in the show.

Kate Kiley is the fiercely haughty mother, Liza Vann the icy wife and Katherine Yacko the mysterious mistress.

Til Turner supplies a modish cafe set with two free-standing wooden towers that turn to evoke a stationery store. Imaginative lighting is provided by Wes Calkin. The respectable costumes are by Tamara M. Carruthers.

"Dead Man's Cell Phone" continues through Aug. 14. The box office phone number is 869-1776.


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