by Clark Groome
Michael Hollinger, a former Mt. Airy resident who now lives in nearby Elkins Park, is one of the most prolific and honored playwrights working in Philadelphia. Several of his plays — “An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf,” “Incorruptible” and the brilliant “Opus” among them — have been produced and well received all over the country.
Back in Philly, last week theatrically was Michael Hollinger Week. His latest show, the 10th one, given its world premiere at the Arden Theatre, is “TouchTones,” which plays through Dec. 3.
“Red Herring,” an earlier work Arden premiered in 2000, opened at Ambler’s Act II Playhouse, where it will be through Nov. 19.
Hollinger’s latest begins at a ceremony where a number of young couples pledge their commitment to remain virgins until their wedding night. The next scene, five years later, focuses on Christine (Alex Keiper) and Justin (Michael Doherty) having a bit of imaginary sex together. Both don’t want to wait for their wedding, but both are determined to honor their pledges. Sort of.
The two of them have identical cell phones, and when Justin leaves Christine’s apartment, she goes to make a call but after realizing it’s her fiancé’s phone, discovers a number of calls to “Mercedes.” When Justin returns to retrieve his phone, she questions him, even though she already knows that Mercedes’ number is really that for a phone sex line.
He lies. She tosses him out. She then gets a job at TouchTones, the very phone sex company he has been calling. Her coworkers are a strange and somewhat appealing mixed bag, all overseen by their boss Pearl (the inestimable Joilet F. Harris, of Germantown). One thing leads to another, and not unexpectedly, Christine and Justin reconnect (“start over” is a better description) with a more realistic or open view of the physical part of their relationship.
“TouchTones,” at its heart a romantic comedy meant to touch our hearts, has its moments but is really an inflated version of what should be a 20- to 30-minute skit. The acting is strong, and their singing of Robert Maggio’s decent if not particularly memorable songs (Hollinger wrote the lyrics) is very good. What is confounding is that they saved the best number, an ensemble reprise of “You Gotta Be Who You Want,” to end the show.
The physical production designed by Tim Mackabee (sets), Alison Roberts (costumes), Mike Inwood (lighting) and Rick Sims (sound) is clever and appropriate. Ryan Touhey’s musical direction, and the three-piece combo he directs are very good.
Director Emmanuelle Delpech has mounted the show simply and directly, giving each of the supporting characters — April Ortiz’ Theresa, Darick Pead’s Brad, Kevin R. Free’s Gary and Jess Conda’s Holly — his or her moment in the spotlight.
Keiper and Doherty are fine as the struggling, horny young couple. Joilet Harris is simply spectacular, a theatrical treasure about whom Philadelphians should be proud and for whom they should be grateful.
“TouchTones” has its moments. Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough of them to make the material stand up for two hours and 25 minutes.
For tickets, call 215-922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org
There’s a murder mystery, a spy story and three romances in Hollinger’s “Red Herring.’ While not totally successful, Mt. Airy resident David Bradley’s sharply-directed production makes the play’s best moments, which are too few and far between, almost overcome its somewhat silly and occasionally tedious plot.
Rachel Camp, Charlie DelMarcelle, Eilen Cella, Patrick Romano, Hayden Saunier and David Ingram make up the strong cast, all of whom, with the exception of Rachel Camp, play many roles.
The good designers were Colin McIlvaine (set), Lily Fossner (lighting), Katherine Fritz (costumes) and Christopher Colluci (sound).
“Red Herring” isn’t one of Hollinger’s strongest plays, but it does work as a silly and ofttimes entertaining way to spend a couple of hours in the theater.
For tickets, call 215-654-0200 or visit www.act2.org