Puppetry of the Penis
Puppetry of the Penis
Saw three shows in three days. The first was Monster, Neal Bell's new take on Frankenstein, at the Classic Stage Company. Liked a lot of it. Was amused, though, to see a little notice pasted onto the window card: "There will be nudity in this production."

More and more nudity seems to be creeping into shows. I anticipated that the nudity in Monster would involve the monster (called Creature, by the way), and I was right--but only half right. Deep into the show, Frankenstein's fiancée decided that he was spending too much time on the Creature and not nearly enough on her, so she took off her robe to display quite a lovely figure--and a pierced bellybutton.

Hmm. The program states "Time: The early 1800s," and that wasn't a period when women were piercing their bellybuttons. (Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think I am.) Aren't those rings removable? If so, shouldn't actress Annie Parisse have gone to the, uh, blacksmith, or whomever and had the thing eighty-sixed? I would have thought she'd have done that before her first callback. Maybe, once a bellybutton ring is in, it's not so easy to take it out; maybe, like a wedding ring, a bellybutton ring is to have and to hold from this day forth. I also wondered: Does director Michael Greif's decision to cast a pierced performer come under the heading of non-traditional casting? Maybe he felt that he had to have the best performer for the role, regardless of her piercings. In that sense, his decision made sense, because Parisse was terrific in the part.

Then I went to see Robert Lesser's A Magic Place in a New Time, which takes place "in an apartment building on the West Side of Chicago in the early 1950s." It's the story of Amy Baumeister, a Milwaukee teacher who fell in love with her school's principal and, when he threw her over, bolted for the Second City. Across the hall from her lives a mousy guy, but he'll do; she has a one-night stand with him that she assumes will automatically lead to marriage. It doesn't, so Amy goes nuts, tears off all her clothes in the hall, and runs into the street naked. Maybe that's not convincing, but actress Kaitlin O'Neal's navel turned out to be: There was nary a bellybutton ring in sight.

I suspect the nudity in this show was added by director Robert Armin (who staged the weak script superbly, with a naturalistic feeling that was precisely right). For A Magic Place in a New Time was written before June 29, 1965 and nudity didn't invade the theater until April 1968, when Hair paid a call. You may ask: How do I know that A Magic Place... was written before June 29, 1965? Because the press kit included a letter with that date on it from noted director Ralph Nelson, saying that Lesser had "drawn some fascinating character relationships," that he'd written "a powerful play with excellent characters," and that "there are rich acting roles here." Nevertheless, he passed on the project because he claimed to be "committed until the following March to a big western [film] starring James Garner and Sidney Poitier." (That, incidentally, was Duel at Diablo.) In conclusion, Nelson noted that Lesser "should have no trouble getting a production."

Actually, he did have a problem. The press kit also included a rejection from Joshua Logan, who, on August 3, 1965, claimed he didn't want to do the play because "Somewhere far in my background, someplace that I cannot reach or remember, this play has stirred me, and, more than that, disturbed me. I just found it too personally depressing to feel that I could work on it." Well, that's one way of putting it. But, now, here it is as a showcase produced by "RCL Productions" (anybody want to bet against me that the "R" and the "L" stand for Robert Lesser?) at the theater that Primary Stages uses on 45th Street. Actually, I'm pretty amazed that those letters from Nelson and Logan were distributed to the press...though I did once hear that, in the early part of the last century, kids from India who went to Harvard and flunked out nevertheless ordered business cards that said "Harvard, failed" to show that, hey, at least they got in! I guess Robert Lesser felt much the same way when photocopying these letters for his press kit.

The next night, I went to South Orange, New Jersey to see the latest offering from the Celtic Theatre Company, a semi-pro troupe that does neglected Irish plays. I sat next to a 70-ish man who recognized me from my TV appearances in Jersey. Turned out he'd been attending shows since the '30s, so I asked him what some of his favorite theatrical memories were. He quickly mentioned Robert Morley in Edward, My Son. I started to get the feeling that this was going to be a rarefied conversation--that is, until he asked me, "Have you seen Puppetry of the Penis?"

More Off-Broadway nudity! Would John Houseman have believed that a theater named for him would ever house two guys standing in front of us and playing with their genitals, stretching their skin in an attempt to represent hamburgers, the Loch Ness Monster, snails, and (of course) hot dogs on buns? In one respect, you've got to give David Friend and Simon Morley credit: Too few performers care about the audience in the balcony, but these guys sure want those in the back rows to see as well as those in the front. So their henchman, who's named Priapus, sits in the audience and focuses a videocam on them in order to project the fruit of their labors onto a large screen. This allows you to see the boys' genitals magnified hundreds of times, not to mention the inflamed pustule on the left leg of the "actor" stage right. (I don't know which "actor" is which, and I don't want to know.)

Well, at least that fellow had an inflamed pustule when I saw the show two months ago, so I asked the septuagenarian if it had cleared up since then. Apparently, it has, for he didn't seem to know what I meant. "The place was full of old women," he told me with a big laugh. And I'll bet not one of them had a pierced bellybutton.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]