'TouchTones' pushes buttons but leaves the audience on hold (Arden Theatre Company)

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Two people embrace, kneeling, facing towards each other on a couch; scene from a play, likely in song

Alex Keiper as Christine and Michael Doherty as Justin in Arden Theatre Company’s production of "TouchTones." (Mark Garvin)

The new musical comedy “TouchTones” at Arden Theatre Company is out of whack. It’s a show about two characters overcome by phone sex, yet it’s not sexy — just mildly suggestive. It’s about a particular corner of the sex industry built fully on fantasy, but the plot suggests that fantasizing is a way to cheat on someone you love. And it even attempts to resolve questions it poses — Is sex before marriage good or bad, practical or not? Is fantasy an act of betrayal? — and then clumsily evades them with a non-answer: Be yourself.

The effect is like a waitress asking if you want maple syrup with your burger.

This world premiere at Arden Theatre Company has its moments — the script by locally based playwright Michael Hollinger will occasionally make you laugh out loud, and his lyrics can be bitingly clever. Robert Maggio’s music is a good fit – simple and spunky. A three-piece orchestra offers nice accompaniment, but richer orchestration and a few more musicians would make “TouchTones” feel less like a little musical and more like a big production. The solid quality of the songs deserves as much.

Maybe I’m the one who’s fantasizing now, because I had high expectations for “TouchTones,” given Hollinger’s success as a playwright (his work is produced all over, and much of it is premiered at the Arden) and Maggio’s impressive original music for plays, especially Philadelphia Theatre Company productions. Also, “TouchTones” is directed by Emmanuelle Delpech, a versatile theater artist with her own well-considered vision.

But something falls flat and seems slow in this musical, clocking in at more than two hours for its two acts. I’m not referring to individual scenes — several of them end with zings, mostly because the songs drive them. They’re about the way new computer technology is making phone sex passé, or bad dates, or letting your sensual side evolve. Still, the show tries to make a point by its end, a feel-good point that’s not relevant. The production isn’t helped by little blackouts between scenes while the cast rearranges furniture on Tim Mackabee’s good-looking sets. These interruptions last only a few seconds each, but they suck momentum from the room.

The musical begins in 1994, for reasons I can’t discern, and never gets beyond the end of the millennium. “TouchTones” itself is a phrase much better understood then than now. But setting the show in the past — needlessly, I think — automatically gives it a dated feel, even though judging by my spam-mail folder, phone sex is very much available. (I got home to find spam that populated while my wife and I were at the show. The subject line on the first entry: “Russian Women Want to Talk Dirty to You.”)

“TouchTones” begins with a scene as prevalent now as in the ’90s: A group of teenagers at a religious camp vows to hold off until marriage because “the best sex is married sex.” These kids wear T-shirts emblazoned with “I ♥ CHASTITY” and put on rings they’ll wear until marriage … or until they fall off the virginity wagon.

They include Christine and Justin (Alex Keiper and Michael Doherty, two actors who’ve grown steadily on Philly stages and shine in these roles). The kids become a couple, and before you can say “scene change” it’s five years later. They’re 22 years old and planning their wedding day. They sit in Christine’s apartment, eyes closed and holding hands, yet speaking to each other in the language of lovers ripping off each other’s clothing — and that’s as far as it ever gets. She tires of this and wants some action. He reminds her of their commitment to physical purity. Uh-oh, the vow is a bone of contention months before the altar’s ready.

The high-minded Justin has a secret fantasy life on the phone, though, and when Christine finds out, she ends up visiting a day-to-day sex-phone operation where the staff of women and men are the fulfillment division. They sit and read magazines or books between calls, worry about the things that affect just about anybody, play idly with gewgaws on their desks. When the phones ring, it’s all dirty talk. After that, it’s back to small talk among themselves.

The owner-boss (a wonderfully expressive Joilet F. Harris) perfectly defines the dichotomy when she asks one of her employees to take a call she was about to answer. The worker asks what the caller’s looking for. “Red head,” she answers. “Dominatrix type. Line 3. I’ve got my grandson on the line.”

The musical’s joke about garden-variety people with come-hither professional lives (they are played and sung gamely by Jess Conda, Kevin R. Free, April Ortiz and Darick Pead) gets old before “TouchTones” is over. But the show has other things in mind. It wants — or maybe the show’s creators feel that they need — to leave us with a message about the themes it explores. The cop-out they choose makes the musical neither very good nor very bad, just okay. Problem is, except for standard (and rigid) answers to questions about pre-marital sex and the impact of fantasy, there may be no answer that works in every case. But I think the answer to these particular questions isn’t, as the final song is titled, “You Gotta Be Who You Want” because, well, you know, that’s the real you.

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“TouchTones” runs through Dec. 3 at Arden Theatre Company, on Second Street north of Market Street. 215-922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.

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