Review: Phone Technology is Only Part of the Surreal Story in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by the Comrades

Latta, Moody and Newquist as Mrs. Gottlieb, Jean and Dwight. Photo by Paul Goyette.

It’s just a plain old flip phone. Not one of those computer-in-your-pocket devices that runs your life today. But when Jean takes possession of the phone, it enables her to meet new people, find love and visit the Johannesburg airport.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Sarah Ruhl’s 2007 play, may be a decade behind in phone technology, but it retains its zing and surreal charm in the Comrades’ staging at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Arianna Soloway directs this rendition with a sharp cast of five, led by Cydney Moody as Jean.
Jean sits in a coffee shop drinking coffee and writing. A man sits with his back to us at another table. Suddenly his phone rings. And rings. Stops and rings again. Jean, impatiently, ”Excuse me—are you going to get that? . . . . Would you mind answering your phone?” The phone keeps ringing. Finally, she answers his phone and asks if she can take a message or chats with the caller. After determining he’s dead, she dials 911 and tells the police how to find the café. And puts the phone in her purse.

Jean, dressed in a dark raincoat, goes to the funeral, presided over by Mrs. Gottlieb (Caroline Dodge Latta), Gordon’s mother. (Yes, the dead man is Gordon, played by Bryan Breau; you’ll meet him later.) When Mrs. Gottlieb calls her son’s cell phone, Jean chats with her and accepts an invitation to dinner. There she meets Gordon’s widow Hermia (Lynnette Li) and his brother Dwight (Mike Newquist). Everyone assumes that Jean and Gordon were friends, at least, since she was “with him” when he died. And she has his cell phone, after all—which only Mrs. Gottlieb seems to think is strange.

Mrs. G. Gordon left his phone to you?
Jean. Yes … he left it to me.
Mrs. G. Why?
Jean. He wanted me to have it. Why do you call him on the phone, after the funeral?
Mrs. G. I call him every day. I keep forgetting he’s dead. It’s habit.

Jean and Dwight find they have interests in common (they both love paper) and their friendship blossoms. And in discussion with everyone that Gordon knew, Jean manages to tell them what they wanted to hear: Gordon loved them, talked about them as he died, wanted them to have this token of his love, etc.

Moody and Li as Jean and Hermia. Photo by Paul Goyette.

The daffiness continues as Jean gets involved inadvertently in Gordon’s peculiar business. (Thus the Johannesburg trip.)

Dead Man’s Cell Phone runs 90 minutes with no intermission and you will not be checking your phone (or watch if you’re old school) to see if it’s almost over. Soloway’s actors are all notable, and performances by Moody and Latta are particularly strong. Latta is adorably gloomy as the fur- and velvet–wearing Mrs. Gottlieb and Moody is simply believable as the lonely woman whose life is rejuvenated by a stranger’s cell phone.

Sydney Achler’s minimalist stage set is highlighted by a set of angled walls that enable characters to appear and disappear without doorways. Mike McShane’s lighting and Eric Backus’ music and sound design make the quick scene changes by the cast work well. Kelsey O. Cox designed the costumes.

Sarah Ruhl, a Wilmette native, is known for plays such as In the Next Room, or, the Vibrator Play; EurydiceFor Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday; and The Clean House. Her work has received major awards and she received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2006.

The Comrades, founded in 2016, continue with Dead Man’s Cell Phone in the second floor studio space at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2237 N. Lincoln, through March 10. Tickets are $20.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.