By Arlene McKanic
“Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” the absurdist comedy by Sarah Ruhl (whose “Vibrator Play” is now on Broadway) at Queens Theatre in the Park starts by asking the question, “What would you do if the guy sitting next to you at a cafe dropped dead, and his cell phone kept ringing?”
This is the dilemma that faces the innocent dingbat Jean (Denise Fiore), whose determination to somehow honor the dead man’s — Gordon’s — life leads her into all sorts of Wonderlandish scrapes, especially with his family.
The family in question consists of Gordon’s foul-mouthed, upper-crust mother Mrs. Gottlieb (Janice Bishop); his unhappy wife Hermia (Leslie Swanson); and his doofus brother Dwight (Ross Pivec), a man whose creepy, overbright smile calls to mind a hybrid of Paul Lynde and George W. Bush.
Sweet-natured Jean starts off by telling them what she believes are harmless lies about Gordon, ostensibly to make them feel better about his death, even though she knows absolutely nothing about him. She’s a bit like Poppy in Mike Leigh’s “Happy Go Lucky,” though not as smart or resourceful. Yet her lies work, and Jean is invited, tentatively, into the fractious bosom of Gordon’s family.
Her problem comes, of course, when she tells one lie too many. Jean, who has appointed herself the keeper of Gordon’s cellphone, can’t know that his line of work was majorly inappropriate and probably illegal, yet she tells everyone that she used to work with him.
The cast is ably directed by Bernard Bosio, with help from Glenn Rivano’s careful lighting design; the sparkle he imparts to Mrs. Gottlieb’s jewelry and the family’s table setting says much about their social status, and Jean’s. The sound design by Dayle Vander Sande includes Gordon’s orphaned, maddeningly chirping cellphone, a sound that begins to work on Jean the way the ringing bell worked on Pavlov’s dogs.
Along with Fiore, Bishop, Swanson and Pivec, Ben Prayz appears — from the afterlife — as a cheerfully amoral Gordon. He admits that when he entered the café and saw that Jean had taken the last of the lobster bisque he’d looked forward to all day he wanted to pay the waiter to take it from her. Yet, watching her eat the last of the soup stirred a compassion in him that was probably the last thing he felt before he met his maker.
Ashley Kuske is cool and just as amoral as Gordon’s mistress, but she’s as heartened by Jean’s lies as his family is. Kuske also plays a stranger who meets Jean in an airport in a scene that’s a hilarious sendup of a bad Cold War spy movie.
Produced by the Outrageous Fortune Company at Queens Theatre in the Park, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is a slight but loopy meditation on what we owe and don’t owe perfect strangers and the lengths some people will go to to make a connection.
“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” ended its run Nov. 22.