In her foreword to Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, Gloria Steinem says of the clitoris, “If such an organ were unique to the male body, can you imagine how much we would hear about it?” We probably wouldn’t hear much. Men’s fear and jealousy of women’s genitals is matched only by the competitiveness and secrecy with which they surround their own. And since men dominate the culture, making feminist art about vaginal visibility is a good basis for retaliation—that’s why it’s become such a cliché. But David L. Paterson’s ostensible response to Ensler, The Penis Chronicles (Pulse Ensemble Theatre), isn’t quite keen enough to juxtapose men’s cluelessness about their bodies with a parody of feminist art’s voyeurism, activism, and gynecology.
That’s not to say that it sucks. There are plenty of droll moments and clever situations among the 18 short skits that make up the piece, including a teenager in a public john trying to collect someone else’s urine before a drug test, a porn writer trying out penile synonyms, and a film exec being stuck with an NC-17 rating by a censor. But Paterson’s strained attempts to pump drama and pathos into a few of the monologues consistently lack the tumescence of his comedy, at times crossing the line into the unintentionally humorous. “All guys think with their dicks,” says a soldier castrated in the Gulf War, who has just received a medal (the Purple Cock?). “Some guys, all they can do is think.” Adequately if unimpressively performed by six actors of the sort you might encounter in a dusty black-box conservatory, the monologues include a woman portraying a pre-op transsexual who, in the play’s most telling error, refers to the procedure as getting her penis “cut off.” If Paterson had done his homework, he’d know what it takes to change a penis to a vagina.