Men on Stage

'The Penis Monologues' largely rises to the occasion, but '3 Guys' is a tragic drag

Everyone knows there are a lot of pricks in the theater world, and they're something of an obsession in two shows that opened locally last week.

Live Theatre Workshop's late-night Etcetera series is presenting The Penis Monologues, which is exactly what it claims to be, except that the monologues are about penises, not by them. In contrast, coyness rules at Beowulf Alley's 3 Guys in Drag Selling Their Stuff; the male members are unremarked upon and hidden beneath skirts, tee-hee. In this case, too, the title says it all; indeed, there's nothing more to this play than what the marquee announces.

More about that later. First, The Penis Monologues, Christopher Johnson's body-part counterpart to the oft-performed The Vagina Monologues. The aptly named Johnson doesn't intend to insult his show's distaff predecessor; The Penis Monologues stand on their own as a sequence intended to be "inclusive of all penile perspectives and experiences." As with real-life penile experiences, some of these episodes are more interesting than others.

Johnson solicited monologues from all sorts of people, and assembled a dozen of the submissions, including a few of his own--which are among the most penetrating entries. Johnson wrote "Mistaken Nakedness" but turned the acting over to Jay C. Cotner, who gives an excellent and brave performance as a self-hating gay man recalling a couple of early sexual encounters, and their troubling combination of pleasure and shame. In addition, Johnson both wrote and performs "Foreskinned," a funny anti-circumcision rant.

In both of these pieces, Johnson displays a gift for poetic turns of phrase--certainly in the more serious monologue, but also in "Foreskinned," which includes lines like, "When you separate a man from his foreskin, it's like separating the Serengeti from the summer rains."

Other good things here include the opening and closing songs written by Michael Martinez, which he performs with the rest of the cast, and Dawn C. Sellers' "The Red Wagon," in which Kristi Loera plays a little girl describing an encounter with a strange man. The story turns out all right for the girl, but, considering the potentially tragic consequences, I'm not sure whether that's a relief or a betrayal.

Drawn as this show is from multiple sources, not every element works so well. Particularly disappointing the night I attended were the two segments featuring improvisational-comedy troupe Not Burned Out Just Unscrewed. With improv, anything can happen, and what happened was a lot of struggling to pull mini-skits together into something coherent and funny. Once in a while, somebody would hit on a great laugh line, but then the group would abruptly move on to something less successful.

Still, there's enough worthwhile material in this show to reward audience members of patience and goodwill. And women, don't worry: There's nothing misogynistic here. The Penis Monologues is not anti-Vagina Monologues, but between the two shows, there is a vas deferens.

There's little to recommend in 3 Guys in Drag, despite the best efforts of the Beowulf Alley Theatre team. It's well-designed, and the three actors--Richard Chaney, Kenton Jones and Mike Sultzbach--do what they can with the material, but they have little of value to work with.

Edward Crosby Wells is the author of this aimless cocks-in-frocks play about three people--whether they're supposed to be women or drag queens is anyone's guess--holding a kitschy yard sale in a fairly tony suburb. For two hours, we witness the dysfunctional antics of the trashiest members of the Social Register; it's a sort of Grey Gardens garage sale.

Wells' script comes off like an awkward translation, by somebody like a young Christopher Durang, of a 1960s Czech absurdist farce, in which the translator has focused exclusively on character peculiarities and forsaken the inherent political and social criticism.

I suppose the mere thought of a man in a dress may have been hilarious back in the days of Milton Berle, and was still good for a snicker back in the days of Benny Hill, but it has never been enough to hang two hours of theater upon. 3 Guys in Drag has something that almost resembles a plot, but it has absolutely nothing resembling a point. You know this is going to be a weak script from the very first bit of dialogue, in which a character has one of those telephone conversations you never hear in real life: The person repeats everything being said on the other end of the line. This is clumsy and dumb.

Cynthia Jeffery has in the past proved to be a good director and an even better actress; here, as director, she draws from her actors the best performances she can get under the circumstances, but she can't make 3 Guys in Drag coalesce into anything meaningful or even consistently amusing.

The shows have been close to selling out so far, so it seems that a fair number of people really are interested in seeing some tranny action on stage. But don't forget that the alternate definition of "tranny," according to the Urban Dictionary, is "lame and stupid."