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BUSY SIGNAL: `DENISE CALLS UP' HAS TOO MANY HANGUPS

DENISE CALLS UP - * * - Tim Daly, Caroleen Feeney, Dan Gunther, Dana Wheeler Nicholson, Liev Schreiber, Aida Turturro, Alanna Ubach; rated PG-13 (sex, nudity, profanity, vulgarity); exclusively at the Avalon Theater.

If "Denise Calls Up" is to be believed, we're in danger of becoming a nation of agoraphobic dweebs.

Certainly that's true of the characters in this talky comedy-drama, a stagey production set in Manhattan with an appealing ensemble of characters who communicate strictly by fax, e-mail and, primarily, by telephone (juggling call-waiting and conference calls along the way). "I'm up to my ears . . . ," they keep telling each other.

In truth, however, they are simply technology-addicted, housebound, workaholic yuppies who work at home via computer. And they really are agoraphobics - they seldom leave their apartments (even their groceries are delivered), apparently due to an abnormal fear of open, public places and personal interaction.

As a result, their one-on-one social skills are limited at best - and in one case, fatal.

Call this one " `Friends' By Phone."

Frank (Tim Daly, of TV's "Wings") and Gale (Dana Wheeler Nicholson, best-known for "Fletch") are an ex-couple anxious to set up their best friends Jerry (Liev Schreiber) and Barbara (Caro-leen Feeney) on a date. But every time they create an opportunity, no one has time to show up.

This is true of a party thrown by Linda (Aida Turturro), an impromptu lunch-date, a hospital birth, a New Year's party that closes the film - and even a funeral, after one of the group is impaled by a cell phone in a car accident. (And although no one goes to the funeral, all express grief, saying they were "deeply affected," though most had never met the victim.)

Rounding out the ensemble are Martin (Dan Gunther) and Denise (Alanna Ubach), who is the only person we see out-and-about on a regular basis. Denise is not an educated yuppie, however. She is more blue-collar, but she's also pregnant with Martin's baby, the result of in vitro fertilization. It seems that Martin donated to a sperm bank anonymously, but Denise has a friend at the clinic who gave her his name - and she calls him out of the blue and strikes up a telephone relationship.

"Denise Calls Up" is a slight and somewhat tenuous experimental piece, which might have worked better as a stage play, where attempts at spontaneity would be more fresh and the plot machinations might seem less contrived.

As it is, the conceit of having everyone talk together almost exclusively by cell phone wears out its welcome by the halfway mark, especially when Jerry and Barbara engage in a rather desperate means of intimacy - phone sex - referred to by one character as "moan, groan, dial tone." (And after "Girl 6" and "The Truth About Cats and Dogs," this is quickly becoming a labored '90s device.)

There are some amusing sitcom-style situations that lampoon our electronic-communications age, the players are all quite charming and the denouement is bittersweet. And at a scant 79 minutes, the film strives to be concise without overstaying its welcome.

But writer-director Hal Salwen is still unable to make the film feel like much more than an elongated skit.

"Denise Calls Up" is rated PG-13 for a couple of profanities and some crass sex talk, along with partial nudity in the phone sex sequences.