Chemist and playwright Carl Djerassi’s résumé is as thrilling as anything he’ll ever write. Among his credits are the invention of the birth control pill, the National Medals of both Science and Technology, novels, the creation of an artists’ colony, and escape from the Nazis. Intimidated yet? His age and experience practically grant him the right to pour multiple strains of scholarship and streams of Shavian banter into the slightly misshapen mold of his play Phallacy.
At her Vienna museum, Dr. Regina Leitner-Opfermann (Lisa Harrow) has written a book about what she believes is an authentic bronze statue from second-century Greece. She rhapsodizes about the piece in a way that suggests a fierce, lonely horniness beneath her standoffish facade, as she exalts “his bivalve buttocks,” “his proud loins,” etc. Her nemesis arrives in the form of chemist Dr. Rex Stolzfuss (Simon Jones), who has determined that Regina’s beloved ephebe must be a Renaissance copy—unfit for the antiquities gallery. Soon he’ll publish his findings and ruin her reputation. Meanwhile, their assistants Emma and Otto have begun a secret dalliance that will lead to spying, betrayal, and eloquent rhetoric.
Armed with dazzling amounts of research, the four spar over the false barriers between science and art. To Regina’s mind, chemists are “cocksure” “scientific bullies,” while Rex and Otto find art historians “blinded by . . . their aesthetic judgments.” Given Djerassi’s profession, it seems suspicious that the chemists (men) are nonchalant yet intellectually rigorous, while the art historians (women) come off as repressed and flighty. The elaborate scheme of the play’s punning title, however, suggests that the scientists throw this battle of the sexes because they lack emotional maturity. To prove Regina’s art history skills are useless, Rex has Otto create a forgery of the statue, identical except that its prick is in a different position. Otto then presents it to the professionally nervous Regina as the find that will restore her credibility. Her anxiety is so acute she both fails to notice the phallic makeover and falls for Otto’s painfully Anglo impression of a Spanish antiquities dealer. When the truth pops out, Emma accurately describes the chemists’ deception as “puerile.” Though the prank seems basic to the play’s inspiration, its outcome deflates all the sexual tension, so that even with the impressive writing and lively performances, the relationships in Phallacy end up a bit-—brace yourself for the penis joke—flaccid.