Mormon Theater Review: Dial Tones

Note: Despite what I have mistakenly written in this review, Dial Tones is still running at Covey Center for the Arts on Provo Center Street,every Thursday, Friday and Saturday through December 22. If you’re in the Utah Valley, or even Salt Lake areas, it’s not too late to see this wonderful show!

I preface this review with a confession: I’m an unabashed fan of romantic comedies. I’ve read/viewed more Jane Austen stories than even my wife; the semi-recent film The Holiday made me cry; Two Weeks Notice was a turning point in my life and I consider While You Were Sleeping one of the most charming movies of all time. I don’t feel that it threatens my manhood to admit this, nor my intelligence. I think that the romantic comedy keeps alive within me, despite the inevitable heartache and trials associated with the thing we call Love, the knowledge that Romance and Marriage are still worth every step along their sometimes heart rending, but ultimately fulfilling paths. If they are well produced and truly committed in their performace, the romantic comedy has the ability to move me in meaningful ways that few other kinds of stories can.

And make no mistake about it: Mormon playwright Scott Bronson’s Dial Tones, despite its philosophical and science fiction underpinnings, is a romantic comedy. And a well written, emotionally honest, charming one at that.

Produced at The Covey Center for the Arts through Bronson’s Nauvoo Theatrical Society, Dial Tones begins not with its two lovers, but a Telephone, with a capital T. This particular Telephone, you see, has a personality, has developed over time into an Artificial Intelligence, or AI. It is this Telephone, performing a kind of electronic practical joke, that initially unites our lovers Kelly and Hazel, by causing Kelly’s phone call to his friend to connect with Hazel’s phone instead– several times. Through this process Kelly and Hazel develop a unique relationship, having never met each other, but interacting with each other as “voices in the dark.” And thus our story begins.

The AI Telephone was a point of debate among the little group of friends my wife and I went with. The others considered that the Telephone was an intrusion into the story, that the editorializing it imposed upon the narrative was unnecessary and distracting. Although I did agree to an extent that there were some moments where the Telephone’s monologues could have been cut back slightly and that there were times when it would be best to have the Telephone let Kelly and Hazel carry through their most intimate moments without commentary, I still vigorously defend not only its inclusion, but its centrality to the story.

From a plot stand point, it is the one that creates the initiating incident; sets up the circumstances in which an otherwise implausible relationship can be created; acts as the antagonist and obstacle to the lovers getting together at several key points; and it is the character who has the power to not only create this relationship, but destroy it, if it so chose to do. It is both the most major threat and the most major hope for these two lovers.

But, more importantly, the Telephone, played very capably (and with a nice touch of spunk) by actress Amelia Schow, has an “emotional” journey of discovery that creates a whole new dynamic within the context of the play. In listening to these two humans develop their relationship, the AI has several personal discoveries and crises.

The Telephone senses the “love” these two supposed strangers develop for each other over the phone, and develops a love for them in return. She calls them her “friends” (although they are unaware of her)– the meaning they create then imposes a kind of meaning upon her voiceless life as well. It becomes evident that this poor Telephone is lonely. It feeds off of the relationship created by these two, as a lonely human would feed off the relationships developed within a book or a television series.

As the Telephone philosophizes throughout the play about the Nature of Love (and the AI’s own lack of Nature), it becomes apparent that the AI thinks it needs these two to continue their on-the-phone-but-never-in-reality-relationship so that it can continue to be vicariously fulfilled. If they were ever to meet in real life, then their phone conversations would end and the Telephone would be left without “friends” again. This whole situation seemed very Isaac Asimov to me (and knowing the playwright’s love for sci-fi and fantasy, this didn’t really surprise me), in addition to it being a very compelling premise.

But as intrigued as I was by the AI Telephone, the real heart of this show was in the relationship between Kelly and Hazel. This was not only due to Bronson’s very naturalistic, real dialogue and fleshed out, potent characters, but also to Elwon Bakly and Fallon Hanson’s vulnerable and powerful portrayals of Kelly and Hazel.

Bakly’s picture of Kelly was very human and likable. This is what a real good guy looks like, without pretension or hypocrisy. Struggling between self control and vulnerability, the tension between protecting others and protecting one’s self is at the heart of many a true hero’s inner conflicts. Having seen Bakly in previous Nauvoo Theatrical Society productions (notably Bronson’s Stones and Thom Duncan’s staged reading of Matters of the Heart), I was expecting a very solid, very real performance. He did not fail to deliver.

It is hard to be impartial to Fallon Hanson’s performance of Hazel for me, for Hanson has been in two of my own plays (Farewell To Eden and Legends of Sleepy Hollow), and because of such I feel a strong friendship to her. Fortunately, she made it easy on me and out did any of the previous performances I have seen her give and made it easily apparent to anyone watching the show that she is an actress who should be watched and cultivated. Her almost haunting emotional vulnerability, sharp intelligence and inherent classiness made her one of the most beautiful characters I have seen in years.

Yet even with such strong performances, it would have been a moot point if those characters didn’t connect powerfully on an emotional, spiritual, social and intellectual level. An additional obstacle was created by the story that in trying to do so, they can only use their voices to connect to each other. They cannot touch, they cannot gaze, they cannot sense each other except by listening and talking. They were directed to never look directly at each other throughout the whole play until that very last, crucial moment. Those who are actors know that this is a considerable challenge.

Yet, despite this, it was one of the most powerfully developed relationships I have ever seen on the stage. The chemistry was explosive and the tension almost unnerving. The ache and longing created the same effect in the audience that was happening upon the stage. Like the AI Telephone, we began to love these two people, to consider them our friends.

Add on top of these Bronson’s elegant and expert directing (you can tell much more about a director when he is given minimal materials, than when he is given something akin to Phantom of the Opera‘s technical wizardry. There’s nothing to hide behind then), and it reveals that this show was one the favorite pieces of theater that I have seen all year.

My only regret about it is that I saw it on its closing weekend and thus couldn’t proclaim to the whole world to see it. I would have gladly bought another ticket and brought a big group of friends. But that’s one of the beauties of theater. It lives vibrantly like a butterfly, immediate and personal and intimate. But then it dies and it was only we few, we happy few, who were truly able to behold and appreciate its beauty.

5 thoughts on “Mormon Theater Review: Dial Tones”

  1. Wow. Thank you very much. It’s always very gratifying to find that what I hoped I was doing was actually happening with at least a part of the audience.

    I have only one objection–THE SHOW’S NOT OVER! We have two more weekends. Tonight, tomorrow and Saturday (Dec. 13-15), and next weekend–Dec. 20-22.

    It’s not too late to see it again, Mahonri.

  2. Wow, I didn’t know this, Scott! I will do my darndest to come again and bring some people with me!

  3. By the way, how have tickets been selling? I so want this show to do well, so that you can at least start in accumulating funds for more NTS productions.

  4. I second everything Mahonri said, except that when I saw it, Amelia Schow’s understudy had to step in for her, and I haven’t had a chance to go back and see her interpretation of the AI role.

    I’ve told people to go see DIAL TONES, though, and I hope they have.

  5. My wife wanted me to point out that she didn’t think I portrayed our discussion about the AI accurately. She and my friends generally liked the AI, but wanted to cut it back from key moments. She really loved the show and doesn’t want a minor issue to overshadow that.

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