There are more answers than questions in Steven Friedman’s one-man show, Phalaris’s Bull. This is first revealed in its subtitle: “Solving the Riddle of th e Great Big World.” A humbler person might have invoked this phrase — attributed to a young Albert Einstein — with existential flair, a nod to its Sisyphean challenge. Friedman, a molecular biologist and visual artist who performs the intermissionless monologue in a Harvard sweatshirt, is not a humble man. He recalls when he discovered his “gift” at a young age and expresses the frustrations of finding someone to date who’s on his level. With memories of childhood interspersed with his studies in philosophy and medicine, he paints his character less like Socrates than like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. The most personal moments come when he talks about the dissolution of his marriage, but even then it feels like he’s figured it out, and we never see the struggle that’s at the heart of good theater.
The bull in question is an ancient Greek torture device that slowly roasts a person alive in such a way that onlookers hear the victim’s screams as music. Friedman describes how Kierkegaard explored the image as a metaphor for the creative process — “our pain becomes beauty” — but he never makes himself sufficiently vulnerable to let us witness that transformation. Instead we get hollow aphorisms like, “Do what you should, and you’ll get what you want.”
Pharlaris’s Bull: Solving the Riddle of the Great Big World
By Steven Friedman
410 West 42nd Street