'Cell Phone' cleverly tackles modern dilemma

07/11/2010 3:23 AM

07/11/2010 7:16 AM

A strange thing about cell phones is that they're supposed to bring us closer together, but they often can drive us apart.

Answering the phone becomes more important than anything in front of us. How many times have you seen a couple sitting together at a restaurant but ignoring each other as they both text on their phones?

Pulitzer Prize finalist Sarah Ruhl takes on this phenomenon in a clever way in her 2008 comedy "Dead Man's Cell Phone," now running at Prospect Theater Project in Modesto.

Jean, a lonely woman, finds her life turned upside down after she impulsively steals the cell phone of man who suddenly drops dead in a cafe right next to where she is sitting.

She answers his calls and starts making friends with the people in his mysterious life. She begins to get close to some of them and even becomes romantically involved with one. But through it all, her biggest attraction is always to the ever-ringing phone.

Ruhl is an original writer and the story takes some surprising turns that include a visit to the afterlife.

Lynette Borrelli is delightfully eccentric as Jean, and somehow manages to convey timidness and fearlessness. Borrelli's Jean can be shy and quiet but when she wants to know something or hold something back, she stands firm. She has a knack for telling people what they want to hear at the right time.

As dead man Gordon, Jack Souza shines in a very funny after-life monologue about the last days of his life. Gordon isn't a good person at all, but he is wickedly witty.

The rest of the characters seem ripped from the pages of a comic book -- they are exaggerated types more than real people. Heike Hambley is overbearing as Gordon's mother, Mark Dooley is ridiculously nervous as Gordon's pushed-aside brother, Michelle Raust is hypersexual as Gordon's mistress and Angi Ciccarelli is an ice queen (figuratively and literally) as Gordon's widow Hermia.

One question that is never sufficiently addressed in the play is why his widow or the rest of the family doesn't demand the phone back from Jean.

Director Jim Johnson, a Modesto theater legend, does a fantastic job of playing up the magical elements of the story. The retired Modesto Junior College arts dean and theater professor creates lovely stage pictures, having cast members holding umbrellas and cell phones do a dance around Souza to emphasize their isolation from each other. MJC dance instructor Lori Bryhni served as movement coach.

Johnson also skillfully uses screen projections of paintings and photographs to fill out the set and serve as effective backdrops.

Up-to-the-minute current, "Dead Man's Cell Phone" explores how people deal with the constant barrage of information that comes their way.

Watch Bee Scene on video at videos.modbee.com.

Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan Renner can be reached at lrenner@modbee.com or 578-2313.

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