Dial Up ACL and RLT’s Pixilated Production of Sarah Ruhl’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” for Laughs

"Dead Man's Cell Phone" concludes its three-week run on Feb. 2-5 on Raleigh Little Theatre's second stage
"Dead Man's Cell Phone" concludes its three-week run on Feb. 2-5 on Raleigh Little Theatre's second stage

"Dead Man's Cell Phone" concludes its three-week run on Feb. 2-5 on Raleigh Little Theatre's second stage
"Dead Man's Cell Phone" concludes its three-week run on Feb. 2-5 on Raleigh Little Theatre's second stage

Actors Comedy Lab and Raleigh Little Theatre have a sure cure for the mid-winter blahs. Triangle theatergoers dial can dial up ACL and RLT‘s pixilated production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone for laughs. The show sags in some places, but cast members really sink their teeth into juicy roles that American playwright and MacArthur Fellowship (genius grant) recipient Sarah Ruhl has created.

Actors Comedy Lab diva Morrisa Nagel once again demonstrates a fine flair for comedy with her delightfully ditzy performance as Jean, a restaurant customer increasingly exasperated as a cell phone at a nearby table rings repeatedly, but is ignored by its owner. When she approaches her insensitive fellow diner (Stanley Amditis as Gordon) to express her indignation at his rudeness, she finds that he is dead, but for some reason she cannot resist answering his cell phone — and taking it with her after authorities come to collect the body! And so the game is afoot, with Jean unknowingly following Gordon’s back trail through a landscape — suggested with slides on a rear projection screen and a few pieces of furniture by scenic and lighting designer Thomas Mauney and video designers Rod Rich and John Maruca — figuratively littered with landmines.

When she attends Gordon’s funeral, she meets Gordon’s strangely stentorian and foul-mouthed mother Mrs. Gottlieb (Kate Tonner), Gordon’s not-so-distraught widow Hermia (Tracey Phillips), and Gordon’s brother (Stanley Amditis again). But it is Jean’s tête-à-tête with a mysterious business associate of Gordon’s known only as The Other Woman (Amy Bossi-Nasiatka) that should set ring alarm bells ringing in Jean’s brain, but somehow doesn’t. Jean dutifully — and increasingly improbably — slogs on, through one comic misadventure after another, much to the audience’s amusement.

Although Morrisa Nagel is wonderfully wacky as Jean, Kate Tonner takes Mrs. Gottlieb over the top a bit too soon, and the always amusing Tracey Phillips has far too little to do in this uneven script. Stanley Amditis plays shady businessman Gordon Gottlieb RIP and his dweeby brother Dwight nicely as straight men to a gaggle of zanies; and Amy Bossi-Nasiatka is hilarious her dual role as two of Gordon’s business associates: The Other Woman — who also seems to be the dead man’s playmate for low-rent rendezvous — and The Stranger, whose beautiful exterior and exotic Eastern European accent conceals a heart of ice; and Amber Ivie Hayles, Lee King, Hannah Lee, and Heather Shinpaugh provide a sort of mute Chorus as “The Crowd,” which smoothly slips into and out of scenes.

Actors Comedy Lab co-founders, Rod Rich and his wife, choreographer Nancy Rich, stage the monkey business in this uneven script with plenty of pizzazz, but they cannot overcome all of the script’s flaws and turn Dead Man’s Cell Phone into a real knee-slapper. That said, this show is moderately entertaining, and its hard-working cast earn every laugh.

SECOND OPINION: Jan. 29th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts & Entertainment review by Susie Potter: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/01/dead-man’s-cell-phone-enjoys-a-strong-start-but-ultimately-fizzles/; Jan. 25th Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 3.5 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/dead-mans-cell-phone-is-the-right-show-in-the-wrong-room/Content?oid=2748713; Jan. 24th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/01/24/1801416/staging-enhances-plays-grander.html; and Jan. 22nd Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Julie-Kate Cooper: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=5312. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Jan. 19th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/01/dead-mans-cell-phone-is-an-offbeat-2007-comedy/.)

Actors Comedy Lab and Raleigh Little Theatre present DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE at 8 p.m. Feb. 2-4 and 3 p.m. Feb. 5 in the Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607. TICKETS: $15 ($12 students and seniors 62+). BOX OFFICE: 919-821-3111 or http://www.etix.com/. SHOW: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/shows/11-12/cellphone.html. PRESENTERS: Raleigh Little Theatre: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/index.html. Actors Comedy Lab: http://www.actorscomedylab.com/. VENUE: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/index.html. DIRECTIONS: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/about/map-directions.html. NOTE: All shows are wheelchair accessible. OTHER LINKS: The Play: http://newdramatists.org/sarah-ruhl/dead-mans-cell-phone (New Dramatists). The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books). The Playwright: http://newdramatists.org/sarah-ruhl (New Dramatists) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Ruhl#cite_note-Lahr-0 (Wikipedia).


Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

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To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.

By Robert W. McDowell

Robert W. McDowell is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer, editor, and critic. He has written theater, film, book, and music previews and reviews for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, and Classical Voice of North Carolina, all based in Raleigh. In 1980-91, he covered business, industry, government, and education for (We the People of) North Carolina magazine, published monthly by N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry. In April 2001, McDowell started Robert's Reviews, a FREE weekly e-mail newsletter that provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of the performing arts in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, which includes Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro. Triangle Review is the latest-and-greatest version of McDowell's original newsletter. (To start your FREE subscription, e-mail robertm748[at]aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) From December 1980 until September 2017, McDowell served on the board of directors of The Cinema, Inc., a Raleigh-based nonprofit film society formed in 1966. He currently publishes a weekly list of FREE advance screenings of movies in the Triangle area. (To have your e-mail address added to this FREE list, e-mail robertm748[at]aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.) McDowell also co-edited and supervised the production of Jim Valvano's Guide to Great Eating (JTV Enterprises, 1984), a 224-page sports celebrity cookbook; and he served as a fact checker for Valvano: They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract, and Then They Declared Me Dead (Pocket Books, 1991).