Theater & Dance
"Dead Man's Cell Phone"

By: Sarah Ruhl
Produced by: Los Altos Stage Company
Featuring: Marjorie Hazeltine, David Scott, Judith Miller, Scott Solomon, Kristin Walter and Adrienne Walters
Directed by: Jeffrey Lo
Choreographed by: Lee Ann Payne
Running time: 100 minutes, one intermission
When: September 3-27, 2015
Where: Bus Barn Theater, 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos, California
Tickets: $18-$36. Visit or call 1-650-941-0551

Solomon, Walter
Richard Mayer / Los Altos Stage Company
Scott Solomon as Gordon the dead guy, left, and Kristin Walter as Jean, who wants to comfort his survivors in "Dead Man's Cell Phone," produced by Los Altos Stage Company. The Sarah Ruhl play is at the Bus Barn Theater through Sept. 27, 2015.
A fine production in Los Altos
answers 'Dead Man's Cell Phone'
Playwright Sarah Ruhl's unusual story uses death to talk about how to live; fine cast, direction, brings it to life
September 6, 2015

With "Dead Man's Cell Phone" for Los Altos Stage Company, director Jeffrey Lo is continuing his possible fascination with playwright Sarah Ruhl and her possible fascination with death.

In late January, Lo directed a beautiful production of Ruhl's "Eurydice" at Palo Alto Players, wherein Eurydice dies and goes to the underworld, where she is greeted by her dead father, whom she does not remember, having passed through the river of forgetfulness.

Now, Lo — using some of the same people, onstage and backstage — offers us the somewhat less beautiful but still meaningful "Dead Man's Cell Phone," in which an eager-to-please young woman picks up the oddly and recently deceased Gordon's phone, which keeps ringing, and undertakes to make all his survivors feel better.

Truth be told, it's not really about death, it's about life, and Ruhl, who began her writing life as a poet, just uses death as a tool to carve out her poesy about life, and about how maybe we could do better about living it.

The audience enters the Bus Barn Stage to find Kuo-Hao Lo's stark and beautiful set, with a man sitting at a block-like table, his back to the house. He is stock-still, his palms flat on the table before him.

For a long time, as the audience keeps yapping, and till after Stage Company Executive Director Gary Landis came out to welcome everybody to the opening of the troupe's 20th season.

When the lights go down to signal the start of the play — late, at 8:10 p.m. — I could see this man, Scott Solomon as Gordon the dead guy, take a blessed half-second to wipe his face.

Lights up, and there he is, stock-still again, but he has been joined by Kristin Walter as Jean, who is annoyed that his cellphone keeps ringing, but he doesn't answer it.

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She finally goes over to him, to take matters in her own hands regarding the noisy cellphone, and discovers the guy is dead. She touches his eye, which is a good way to tell (kudos to Solomon for not jumping).

There is nobody else in the cafe, which is odd, and feeds the general feeling that we have, indeed, entered Weird Land.

She answers his phone.

"I'll leave him the message," she says into the phone.

"It was your mother," she tells the dead guy. "Are you still inside there?" she asks him.

She asks God for help in comforting his relatives. With or without God's help, she proceeds to propagate a series of lies intended to comfort the survivors. Why? Does she need the comfort herself? Perhaps.

We meet Gordon's mother, Mrs. Gottlieb, played by Judith Miller, in a series of elegant, beautiful costumes designed by Tanya Finkelstein. At Gordon's funeral, she complains about people who use their cellphones in the shitter. After the funeral, we never again see her without a glass of whiskey in her hands.

We meet The Other Woman, played with fierce aggression by Adrienne Walter, who insists that Jean use some of her lipstick.

We meet the brother, Dwight, played by David Scott, who knows full well that his mother loved Gordon more, but who has some kind of immediate connection with Jean.

And we meet Hermia, Gordon's strikingly beautiful and elegant wife, with fabulous cheekbones that could carve marble.

Hazeltine, Walter
Richard Mayer / Los Altos Stage Company
Marjorie Hazeltine as Hermia, left, is comforted by Kristin Walter as Jean in "Dead Man's Cell Phone."

They all take comfort in Jean's comforting words, but all are mystified about how she knew him. She says she worked for the same company he worked for. Incoming or outgoing, they ask, and she says "incoming," although she doesn't really know what it means.

There is poetic irony, as it turns out, in what Gordon did.

Each person gets his or her chance to demonstrate his or her life with Gordon and without, and the most touching and beautifully performed segment is Hazeltine as Hermia, confessing that when she had sex with Gordon, she didn't pretend he was somebody else; she pretended she was somebody else. It is a powerful and moving speech, as Hazeltine's eyes beg Jean for understanding.

Solomon, who is always a good actor, keeps his back to audience for most of the first part of the show — he's dead, after all, but finally gets to speak his piece about how he died — he'd been dreaming of having lobster bisque, but the last bowl went to someone else in the cafe — Jean — but as he is dying, he is happy for her, that she got "his" lobster bisque, which is close to a grace point for him.

Scott, Walter
Richard Mayer / Los Altos Stage Company
David Scott as Dwight, in back, and Kristin Walter as Jean discover their mutual love of stationery in "Dead Man's Cell Phone."

Jean and Dwight fall in love, but she insists that she must continue answering Gordon's phone, which leads to her death.

Walter as Jean is all big-eyed naivete, trying to be nice, be comforting, to a group of people who have largely given themselves over to bitter cynicism, but find some redemption in her words.

Tall Scott as Dwight, with his high tenor voice, is the physical opposite of the petite Walter, which makes for a fine fit. His hair made me think of Ted Danson; his way of speaking sometimes brought French Stewart to mind.

In death, Jean finds some kind of understanding, then somehow, inexplicably, returns to life.

This is Sarah Ruhl we are talking about, after all.

So, why go see such a weird play?

Because it is a well-written play directed by the gifted, hard-working Jeffrey Lo, and populated by talented actors who are fun to watch.

The entire production is choreographed to the last movement, with actors moving themselves and stage furniture in ways that lend always to the otherworldly, eerie feel of the entire play.

It ain't a cheery musical, but it is meaningful and thought-provoking.

And the overall package — sets by Kuo-Hao Lo, props by Ting-Na Wang, costumes by Finkelstein, lighting by Nick Kumamoto, sound by David Corsello, choreography by Lee Ann Payne, fight direction by Kit Wilder — is excellent.

It's nice to see Bus Barn/Los Altos Stage Company rise to such a level of quality. It hasn't always reached so high.

Email John Orr at

Dead Man's Cell Phone
Richard Mayer / Los Altos Stage Company
Judith Miller as Mrs. Gottlieb, Kristin Walter as Jean and and David Scott as Dwight, from left in front; and Marjorie Hazeltine as Hermia and Adrienne Walters as The Other Woman, from left in back, in "Dead Man's Cell Phone," produced by Los Altos Stage Company. The Sarah Ruhl play is at the Bus Barn Theater through Sept. 27, 2015.