Susan Mohr as Jean answers the cell phone of Gordon, played by Gregory Howard

Dead Man’s Cell Phone opened last night (10/14/10) in Carmel Community Players’ wonderful Clay Terrace venue. The play was written by Sarah Ruhl whose plays have suddenly begun popping up in Central Indiana and whose vivid imagination has also produced the Pulitzer Prize finalists “The Clean House” and “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)” among others. The announcement for her 2006 garnering of the MacArthur Fellowship read in part:

(for) creating vivid and adventurous theatrical works that poignantly juxtapose the mundane aspects of daily life with mythic themes of love and war. To say she takes an original approach to playwrighting would be a vast understatement.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone tells the story of a woman whose life is redirected when she answers the incessantly ringing cell phone of the man who sits dead at a nearby table in a diner. By answering the phone, the woman (Jean) becomes an extension of the deceased and enters his world – meeting his mother, wife, brother, lover, and cohorts. The play is at once a look at our social direction as portrayed by our modern phone habits and a look at a woman who is a bit behind that social curve and her search for a purpose and a definition.

CCP’s production is a perfectly cast, perfectly played rendition which offers plenty of laughs – some from the script, some from the adept characterizations – and plenty of mental fodder to chew on.

Director Kari Ann Stamatoplos shows a deft hand (and mind) in her creation. Starting with the awesome casting and continuing through a set design idea that works wonderfully for the multi-sited action of the story, Stamatoplos has arranged what could be called a revolving plot/set conundrum into a clear path of storytelling. Her actors have a sharp idea of their characters’ intent and tone at every turn. She is to be congratulated for taking on such a challenging script and for making it (mostly) a very smooth journey.

The perfectly cast actors include Susie Mohr, as the woman who answers the phone. Ms Mohr has just the right look and sense of purpose for this seemingly history-less lady. She is sympathetic, confused, hopeful, loving and courageous. I have seen Mohr before onstage and was impressed then as well. I hope she will get more big roles to show off her talent.

Gregory Howard plays the deceased, Gordon. Perfection (again) is the word to describe the manner and tone for his dead man. In a monologue (from beyond) to start the second act, Howard has the audience in his palm as he relates the info that provides a long-awaited exposition for the play. He is a pleasure to watch as he skillfully blends Gordon’s story and emotion without ever losing the character’s self-assured outlook.

John Murray plays the brother, Dwight. Stuck in the imperious realm of his mother, Murray’s Dwight is deft in his escape attempt, although less than manly when he feels it necessary to control a situation. Murray brings just the right look and perfect energy to the role.

Ericka Barker plays Gordon’s widow, Hermia. In a part that doesn’t get it’s due until a second act drinking, confessional scene, Barker does a wonderful job portraying the sometimes haughty, sometimes sad and sorry, sometimes strangely psychotic but aptly named wife of the deceased. She is a complicated creation of Ruhl’s imagination and Barker finds the perfect (I know I keep using that word) tone for her uneven, but ultimately cerebral character.

Diann Ryan brings her always unique acting skills to the role of Gordon’s mother, Mrs. Gottlieb. It is one of those “funny just walking out on stage” type of portrayals that Ryan often brings to a show. Mrs. Gottlieb is a complicated frau – opinionated, overbearing, and overly dramatic. Ryan has just the right touch (perfect, really) of cartoonishness to make the most out of this character, who seems to have many of the best lines – my favorite being when she insists that Jean stays close – because she finds her very comforting, like a small casserole.

Catherine Nading is lovely as the Other Woman/Stranger. Snappily dresssed and mysterious, the character’s confidence in her womanliness is a great counter-point to Jean’s plain-jane demeanor. Again, a perfect casting choice in a flawlessly cast play.

The play itself seemed to have two distinct styles. In Act 1 we travel a non-traditional path (as I noted earlier, exposition is not forthright) but it is a storyline that is cleverly rendered in quirky satire and social comment. In Act 2, after a visit from the beyond with Gordon, we head into a metaphysical tumble that tilts us a bit too much, in my opinion, so that the surefootedness we had to work hard for in the first section is replaced by a mess of ideas and events. It left me with the feeling that the messages I thought I was getting at first, were not so clearly resoluted in the end.

This is neither the fault of the cast or the director – it is the playwright’s doing. We are left to wonder if this play perhaps sat on a shelf for a few months and then was hastily rewired for an ending. But it is an imaginative enough piece and the performances at CCP are so well-rendered and played that I am very glad to have seen it.

In all, Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a very worthy destination for your evening’s plans. It continues this weekend and next Thurs –Sun at Carmel Community Playhouse in Clay Terrace (Meridian and 146th Street area). Ticket info and reservations are available at (317) 815-9387.

I would be very remiss if I did not say a word or two about the 4 person stage crew, listed as Stage Struck Stagehands in the program. Kara Coleman, Matthew Raborn, Suzie Caterino and Andrea Wolfram work together to make quick work of the many scene changes (on the very smartly designed set) as we shuttle from diner, to church, to resplendent home, and on and on – with side trips to Johannesburg, South Africa and back to the diner, and on and on and on… Such a great number of changes more often than not is a point on which I find myself critiquing with a good deal of fault. But, although it finally did get tiresome by the end of the show – the entertaining style and quickness of the Stagehands kept my criticism at bay. Good job everyone!