The Play’s The Thing: Ubiquitous cell phone changes lives in upcoming show

By Ronald B. Hellman

Back in the early 1800s there was a group of skilled British textile workers who protested the introduction of automated looms that would lead to a loss of jobs.

Their livelihood and way of life were threatened by the new technology, so they took to the streets and destroyed machines. They were the Luddites, after a fictitious rabble-rouser by the name of Ned Ludd.

Our modern-day Luddites are somewhat more peaceful, but they still resent all the changes that have been made that presumably make our lives better. Exhibit No. 1 on the do-we-really-need-it technological list is the cell phone. Although I don’t claim to be a card-carrying Luddite, I must confide in you — please keep it to yourself — that I don’t own a cell phone and probably never will.

So it seems appropriate that the first play of The Outrageous Fortune Company’s 17th season, of which I am the outrageous one, is “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” a quirky comedy by Sarah Ruhl.

A woman sits by herself in a café, minding her own business, when the cell phone of a man at the next table rings. It keeps ringing, stops, and rings again. And how annoying is that? Finally the woman goes over to the man to find out why he’s not answering the phone. It turns out that he has the only acceptable excuse — he’s dead.

Now all you people out there who can’t live without your cell phones — not to mention the mini computers that they have become, with all kinds of applications, along with text messaging and twittering, and God knows what else — probably feel sorry for me that I am so far behind the times and don’t realize what I’m missing.

I see you on your phones walking and talking, even while crossing the street, driving and talking, on the train and talking, and when you’re not talking, working your thumbs to send out your messages, and checking your screen to see who is reaching out to you. Okay, the first decade of the 21st century is nearly over, and I guess it’s really difficult for many of you to pay attention to what’s happening around you.

How many meetings have you attended where the cell phones are ringing out a symphony? Just recently the president was giving an important health care speech to Congress, but House Minority Whip Eric Cantor was attending to his texting. At the theater we’re constantly reminded, in writing and verbally, to turn off all electronic devices. Some people still don’t get the message — an actor or two has stepped out of character when an audience member’s cell phone misbehaves to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Or else.

But getting back to “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” a play that will both entertain and instruct: Jean, the protagonist, answers the dead guy’s phone and gets involved with his life. After meeting his mother, his brother, his wife and “the other woman,” she decides to keep his cell phone always on, battery always charged, so in one sense he will never really be gone. You’ll have to wait ‘til November (13-22) to find out how it all turns out.

In the meantime, I’ll try to continue to live without a cell phone, and wonder where Ned Ludd is now that I need him.

Contact Ron Hellman at RBH24@Columbia.edu.

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