Warren Epstein says it was easy to wrap his head around the title role in Springs Ensemble Theatre's Dead Man's Cell Phone. Not because the character's dead — that came with challenges, which we'll get to later — but because when he was alive, this guy Gordon was a jerk.
"I know this person," Epstein says, chuckling. "[He's] somebody who will do and say anything he needs to, to get what he wants, and he almost always gets his own way. ... A lot of narcissistic jerks are very likable, and so it helps me not be a [one-dimensional] villain. I don't do any mustache-twirling; I like this guy. I try and defend him as best I can."
The 2007 Sarah Ruhl play follows Jean, who answers a ringing cell phone in a café, exasperated that Gordon, a perfect stranger, hasn't attended to it himself. When she realizes he's dead, instead of backing off she runs interference for his callers, picking up where he left off and making up happy stories about his life to loved ones and business associates. Naturally, she's in over her head.
But Epstein's role isn't just sitting with his eyes open (though it's no easy feat in the highly intimate SET theater). He also has a lengthy monologue later in the play, informally appealing to the audience from a "strange afterlife."
"They're judges, they have some power over me, so that gives me my motivation," he says. "I need to impress them. I need to persuade them that, 'Yeah I may seem like maybe I'm a scummy guy, but really I'm OK,' which is great because it makes me all the more scummy."
He also meets with Jean in this afterlife and the two share a peculiar bond. Both are liars. Jean is perhaps even lying to herself, having projected onto Gordon a romantic interest and an editorialized upside to his secretive, devious line of work.
She may be just the kind of gal Gordon could want, naïveté or no. "I think he's got some redemption possibilities in his life," Epstein says, "and in his afterlife."