Arden Theatre Company presents ‘Touchtones’ (second review)

Under the white dress

You don’t often spend an entire rom-com musical hoping its protagonists will please, please not reconcile, but that’s what I did during Michael Hollinger and Robert Maggio’s world premiere TouchTones at the Arden Theatre Company.

Alex Keiper and Michael Doherty work out his issues in 'TouchTones.' (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

After the show, I chatted with another writer who noted that bona fide virginity pledgers might find this theatrical romp (set mostly in a phone-sex company headquarters) offensive, because it pokes fun at zealous wait-till-marriage types. But I’m more worried about abstinence-only refugees like myself confronting this mindset’s chokehold. Clearly, it grabs even on the folks who think they’re mocking it.

This new musical leaves the virginity complex intact. The pastors of my youth needn’t worry: shaming and fetishization of women’s sexuality and the lack of meaningful female agency or narrative arc are all still there.

Mercedes, Delilah, and Marco

The 1990s-set TouchTones, directed by Emmanuelle Delpech, opens with Christine (Alex Keiper) and Justin (Michael Doherty) as they plight their teenage troth to virginity. Five years later, they haven’t moved past clasped hands, even though they’ll soon be married. In a song titled “White Dress,” Justin shames Christine for announcing she’s ready to have sex before marriage — even though he’s secretly enjoying a vivid fantasy life with “Mercedes,” a phone-sex operator. Christine feels bad enough to agree to put the whole sex discussion to bed until after the wedding (at which point, everyone knows, intercourse is automatically sublime).

What follows is supposed to be an exploration of the perils and joys of love, swapping fantasy for reality, and being true to ourselves and others.

Christine discovers Justin’s phone history and does what any devout fiancée would do: breaks up with him and lands a job at that phone-sex outfit.

At the office, with the help of lanky, tweedy Brad (Darick Pead), a David Foster Wallace-reading phone-sex whiz, Christine unleashes her long-stunted sexuality by becoming a Southern-style temptress named “Delilah.” I feel ill-equipped even to go into Brad’s white-dude impersonation of “Marco the Latin lover.”

The cast of 'TouchTones' celebrates the lighter side of repression. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)
The cast of 'TouchTones' celebrates the lighter side of repression. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

Along the way, the show perpetuates one of the abstinence-only movement’s favorite false dichotomies: that sex is either a sacred exchange or a demoralizing notch in the bedpost. Christine rejects another partner, apparently because she learns he has had sex with many people in the past — and therefore could have no sincere regard for her in the present.

Justin’s journey

And then — then! —Christine finds out that not only has Justin been availing himself of sex fantasies with someone else, but that his imaginings involve peeling various wedding-gown accessories off of Mercedes. Instead of railing at his hypocrisy, she finds this charming and softens toward him.

Christine returns the engagement ring, promising that now they’ll really get to know each other — and they’ll start their sex life by making Justin’s white-dress fantasy a reality. What did she want out of sex? We don’t know. Does it matter? Probably not.

Justin makes an apparently agonizing journey through chastity (“It’s hard”), shaming his partner for her sexuality while dipping into his own, regretting the loss of her, learning to listen, and trading his fantasies for reality (although fantasy and reality, for him, end up remarkably similar).

Meanwhile, Christine starts the show by saying she would like to have sex with Justin and ends it by saying she would like to have sex with Justin, who, we are supposed to believe, has become a better man. Despite Keiper’s earnest and engaging performance as the story’s ostensible protagonist, Christine cedes the real dramatic growth to him.

Who’s been here before?

Curious about whether the cast could relate to the abstinence obsession that marked my own teen years, I introduced myself to Doherty after the show. Raised Catholic, he said, he lapsed in his mid-teens and then attended a Methodist youth group. To show their Holy Spirit fervor, they’d pound nails into a wooden cross.

Doherty made a pledge not to masturbate that he said he kept for “several years.” (Conversations like this with someone you’ve just met — such is the beauty of theater.)

He also said that for him, the key moment in Justin’s story is when, after weeks in the wilderness, he suddenly hears what Christine has been trying to tell him: instead of loving her, he has shamed her.

A woman with a clear and crucial message about her wants and well-being is heard only when a man is good and ready — and despite humiliating her and violating her trust, he gets exactly what he wanted all along.

Where have I heard this song before? Too many of us can relate to these absurdly stunted and controlling philosophies about relationships and sex. I wish TouchTones was the fresh take it claims to be.

To read a review by Mark Cofta, click here

Our readers respond

Margaret Darby

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on November 09, 2017

What I really enjoy about reading other people's take on theater (and life?) is that it always opens my eyes. When I thought I had the master analysis of this musical, it turns out I was only looking at the issues from my point of view. Thank you for your insights and for sharing your conversations with the actor who played Justin.

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