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New play is a ‘romantic comedy with a happy ending—about death’

The Department of Theatre production of "Dead Man's Cell Phone" runs through Saturday, Oct. 29. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

We’ve all heard it—an errant cell phone ringing in a public place. But what might happen if you answered a stranger’s phone? That’s what members of the Department of Theatre explore in their new production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone, a play by playwright Sarah Ruhl.

Ruhl’s work tells the story of a character named Jean after she answers—you guessed it—a dead man’s ringing cell phone, following her as she dives deeper into his mysterious life. The production runs through Saturday, Oct. 29 in the Studio Theatre.

“Sarah Ruhl writes these wild rides that can be very surprising for the audience, and takes them on an absurd journey that ends up being surprisingly moving,” said director Jonathan Carr, assistant teaching professor in the College of Arts, Media and Design.

Photo courtesy of Grant Terzakis via the Northeastern Department of Theatre

Photo courtesy of Grant Terzakis via the Northeastern Department of Theatre

A New York Times review of the play when it was first staged off-Broadway reads, “[Ruhl’s] theme in Dead Man’s Cell Phone is the paradoxical ability of the title device (and the people who use it) both to unite and isolate.”

“Of [Ruhl’s] plays that I’ve read before, this is one that touches most closely on where we are today,” Carr said. “It’s about how we—in this digital age, where we’re supposed to be more connected than ever but find ourselves without real connection—create meaning in all that. And the play goes right after that directly. Instead of having the main character meet a person, she meets a cell phone, and through her journey discovers people who have lost their own sense of what life is.”

He emphasized that the production has humor, too.

“The way I describe it is that it’s a romantic comedy with a happy ending—about death,” Carr said.

Eva Friedman, AMD’18, plays Jean, the main character in the play. She described it similarly.

“This play is weird, I’m not going to try and deny it,” Friedman said. “This is not your standard night at the theater, but I think there’s something really exciting about that—that we’re exposing people to something outside their comfort zone. And at the same time, it’s also incredibly relatable because, in many ways, it’s like a lovely little romantic comedy.”

Carr said the play itself has offered unique challenges to the cast and crew.

“She’s following the trend of a lot of modern playwrights, which is just throwing things out there to see what we’ll do with them,” he said. “They’re opportunities to dig in and think creatively.”

Friedman, too, noted the ability to work creatively with the piece.

“I fell in love with how wonderfully weird the play is, and how Sarah Ruhl crafts scenes that don’t provide all the answers, which is really fun for us as actors and also for the audience, because they get to put together the puzzle pieces along with us,” Friedman said.

Tickets to Dead Man’s Cell Phone are $15 and can be purchased on myNEU.

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