Eve Ensler has nothing to fear from The Penis Monologues: Men Speak, but she should definitely be aware of the show that just opened at the Beckett. It proves not that the crusade she launched with The Vagina Monologues was so successful that it's inspired an imitator, but that because of this particular imitator perhaps it wasn't quite successful enough.
This show, written and directed by Robert Watts, is less a response to Ensler's landmark performance piece about women's feelings for the most private part of their body and more an ironic riff on the show's concept. The Penis Monologues is a volatile roller coaster of a tribute, not to male genitalia, but to all men and how they're different from women in general and, specifically, Ensler herself.
Watts even hints at his intentions in the opening moments, when the show's three performers (Lev Gorn, Christian Johnstone, and Steve Luker) talk about seeing The Vagina Monologues. They explain that they found it "thrilling, informative, mind-blowing," and "moving, provocative, sexy," but conclude that it was primarily an exhausting experience. "What about the man?", they cry. "His side? What about our private area?" The line between the serious and the comic is thus blurred immediately.
It stays blurred throughout the rest of this unsettling, uneven show, which is either a highly successful attempt at subtle parody or a terribly unsuccessful examination of a serious topic. The speeches comprising the show were purportedly culled from extensive interviews with men, and they cover a wide range of topics, including endowment, circumcision, homosexuality, Viagra, birth control, and, yes, even amputation.
But though the show aims for the provocative and even profound, it never reaches either. Too much feels suspect: A lengthy exchange (heavily influenced on Ensler's writing) between the three men about the various, mostly vulgar terms for the penis; an unruly scene about a penis pump that borders on performance art; monologues about rape and deliberate HIV infection (or, if you prefer, pre-meditated murder) that play as so calculatedly callous it's almost impossible to take them at face value. If these examples are legitimate, they're presented in too unconvincing a manner; if they're parody, they're not pointed enough. Worse, these stranger inclusions make more affecting monologues - including one about a man frustrated with his increasingly dehumanizing role as bread-winner and one about a man's battle with penile cancer - seem potentially false.
The problem is partly with the actors - while Johnstone is at home in his performances of the material, Gorn and Luker struggle with finding much reality in their deliveries. But most of the issues are related to Watts's lethargic direction, which neither clarifies his true goals nor provides even a single moment of visual interest; scenic designer David LaVigna provides a number of carpeted levels for the set that Watts never utilizes. LaVigna, also the lighting designer, has ornamented the playing area only with a large Mars symbol that glows in different colors throughout the evening.
The effect is more feminine than masculine, but not effective at any rate. Ultimately, neither is the show as a whole; it's an interesting experiment, whether earnest or parodic, but one currently without a sufficient payoff. If The Penis Monologues is unlikely to achieve the notoriety of Eve Ensler's seminal work, it at least has some potential as a companion piece, though it will first require quite a bit of clarifying and polishing. If the piece doesn't feel particularly overlong, some cutting wouldn't hurt; in theatre - as in so much else in life - length matters.
The Penis Monologues: Men Speak