Katy Cryns’ character Jean sums up the encroachment of technology on our daily lives when she reflects: “When we have a cell phone, we have to be there to answer. But the more we’re ‘there’ the more we disappear.”
Santa Paula Theater Center’s Main Stage production of Sarah Ruhl’s contemporary play Dead Man’s Cell Phone shows us how simple life could be if we eliminated the distractions, even just a little, and looked at the person sitting next to us, someone who might be beaming a look of lifelong love our way.
At first look we may think Gordon (Brian Robert Harris) is burning a hateful stare into Jean across a crowded café, loathing her for having taken the last serving of lobster bisque. But, Jean finds out later — when it’s too late and life is over — that look was actually a man falling in love. Jean, meanwhile, was too busy passing Gordon an irritated glance for his constantly ringing cell phone.
And then (spoiler alert) a funny thing happens. Turns out Gordon’s dead. Well, it’s not funny so much as it serves as the catalyst for a lot of funny events, including Jean taking his offending cell phone and answering his calls, hoping to help right his life.
Jean is soon at Gordon’s family dinner table with a set of dysfunctional characters straight out of a Mommy Dearest nightmare. Leading the pack is Kathleen Silverman’s flawless iron lady, whose idea of charm is to tell Jean, “You’re very comforting. Like a small casserole.” Since Gordon’s widow Hermia (the always excellent Vivian Latham) spends most of her time drunk, it leaves the door open for Gordon’s brother, Dwight (Ron Flesher), to bring some life into Jean’s daily existence.
Dwight is the opposite of all things transitional and technological, a believer in the permanence of paper and books. When we later see the budding couple in Dwight’s stationery store, Jean is seen sniffing paper with a sincere ecstasy. She decides on a certain type of paper. “I’d like to live in a house made of this one.” Jean and Dwight agree: There are certain experiences that technology robs from us.
And right on time, the dead man’s cell rings.
Though Gordon describes Jean as “nondescript,” Katy Cryns, portrayal is anything but basic and pedestrian. Her performance seems strongest when she’s on the spot and has to come up with a quick fib to console a late friend or relative, and that happens a lot. Jean’s charm comes out right up to the end when she offers a trafficker of human body parts a kidney-shaped lamp she picked out herself. Cryns’ infectious smile glows throughout like one of designer Gary Richardson’s klieg lights.
That smile carries her through as Jean learns the diabolical nature of Gordon’s vocation, which was, shall we say, the business of breaking down the human experience into nuts and bolts, nameless parts without consequence for a profit. Once she gets clued in, Jean goes to all lengths to right Gordon’s wrongs.
And even during the performance come little reminders that, though life is going on all around, it won’t kill us to maintain focus for a couple of hours. And oh, the irony of such a contemporary message in such a charming old building. When a distraction penetrates its walls — a plane buzzing into the local airport, kids at play in the adjacent park, a motorcycle rumbling down Seventh Street setting off car alarms — we’re reminded that distraction waits everywhere, but so does the potential for love.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone through March 16. Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 South Seventh St., Santa Paula, www.santapaulatheatercenter.org.