Stage & Dance

Actors Guild returns with thought-provoking theater in 'Dead Man's Cell Phone'

Thursday's opening night performance of Sarah Ruhl's dark comedy Dead Man's Cell Phone represented not just the launch of the Actors Guild of Lexington's 27th season, but the debut of a new space and a new era.

A heightened sense of occasion about this particular opening night was palpable even before the show got under way.

Artistic director Eric Seale is at the helm as director for the show, which is a brooding, anxious, pensive and yet somehow funny exploration of the role of technology in our lives, particularly as it relates to our ability — or inability — to connect with one another in meaningful ways.

With characters damaged by different varieties of loneliness, an understated set design dotted with empty picture frames and the angst-building crescendos of Tommy Gatton's sound design, the show successfully captures the budding existential quandary of 21st-century life — whether cell phones, Facebook, and other technologies make us more or less fulfilled, more or less understood, more or less human.

Ruhl's clever, witty script takes a pretty obvious stance: less. Seale's directorial vision backs it up.

The story follows Jean, a meek, mousy do-gooder (played by Hayley Williams) who accidentally discovers a dead man, Gordon, at a coffee shop when his cell phone won't stop ringing. Annoyed, Jean answers his phone even after discovering he isn't alive and forms a bizarre, instantaneous connection to him.

Soon she is swept into Gordon's life, attending his funeral, dining at his mother's house, meeting his mistress, falling for his brother, soothing his wife, and even meddling in his business as a black market organ trafficker.

At first the ensemble cast felt a bit disjointed in their chemistry and onstage connections. Then I realized, wait, that is how they are supposed to be. The characters in this show — like Sharon Sikorski's Hermia, Gordon's wife, and Missy Johnston as his mother — are each peculiarly afflicted by different kinds of alienation. The awkward comedy, the sardonic banter that recedes into pain, the failed overtures of intimacy, all demonstrate a primal tug toward connection that modern life frustrates and interrupts with the incessant noise of beeping, ringing and clicking devices.

Johnston somehow manages to portray Gordon's mother with both humor and disturbing, even macabre emotional coldness. Bob Singleton's character, Dwight, Gordon's brother, makes for a nice anti-technology foil.

Jean's unrealized longing for meaningful connection and the extreme behavior she exhibits trying to access it forms the central thematic conflict of the show. Aloof when presented with a real lover, Jean dysfunctionally clings to a manufactured but nonetheless compelling devotion to a man she never knew.

Williams gets the job done as Jean, but it would be nice to see more dimension in her performance. The insights we get into her character often come from the script or supporting cast members.

A regular leading lady in area productions, Williams has a tendency to get stuck in the emotionality of her roles without developing a concrete intellectual framework on which to base them. When Jean says she thinks she loves Gordon, a man she never knew, she comes off as slightly airheadish rather than complex and emotionally afflicted.

Still, Williams' performance is solid and cohesive enough that the show's momentum and thematic integrity remain unspoiled.

Technically speaking, Seale trades realism for minimalism, and it works in his favor.

A darkly entertaining, intellectually satisfying show, Dead Man's Cell Phone marks the return of Actors Guild doing what Actors Guild does best — thought-provoking contemporary theater.

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