Simon Morley (top) and David Friendin Puppetry of the Penis
Simon Morley (top) and David Friend
in Puppetry of the Penis
It's hard to imagine how the venerable actor and director John Houseman, whose stern mug hangs in the lobby of his namesake theater on 42nd Street, would react to the Off-Broadway house's current tenant: a cocky little import from Australia called Puppetry of the Penis. The stars are a couple of charming Aussie goofballs named Simon Morley and David "Friendy" Friend, and they don't really go in for acting or any of that theater stuff. They're just guys with a knack for transforming their genitals into interesting shapes.

Morley and Friend have shaped this ability into an uproarious piece of 21st century vaudeville complete with musical accompaniment, an enormous video screen that provides close-up views of their members for the folks in the back rows, and a regal introduction from Priapus, God of the Penis. Nude but for capes and sneakers (and, in Friend's case, sunglasses and a beach hat), these guys are the Smothers Brothers of the nether regions, bantering and challenging each other as they run through their repertoire of "installations."

Backstage at the Houseman before a recent show, the boys--including Morley's younger brother, Justin, who plays Priapus--were in fine spirits, as you can see below.

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THEATERMANIA: Is doing this show for a living as surreal an experience as it would appear?

SIMON MORLEY: Yeah. I wake up and just go, "What the hell is going on?" Definitely. But I think every man dreams of traveling the world, getting his penis out for an hour, and getting paid for it.

TM: How did this penis play start?

MORLEY: The first time I ever saw it was when Justin came home and showed me a "hamburger," and I fell off the couch laughing. It was quite simply the funniest thing I had ever seen. He was only 16 at the time and I was 22. Then we built a healthy repertoire of [penile origami], trying to make each other laugh. Then friends got to know what we could do, so we'd be at parties and people would be encouraging us to kick our pants off and entertain at some ungodly hour.

TM: When did Friendy enter the act?

MORLEY: He was performing them independently. We're not precious about it--a lot of people do these. We're just taking it way too far.

DAVID "FRIENDY" FRIEND: We're not claiming to have invented them all. Most are in the public domain.

TM: You know, I don't think I've ever heard of anyone doing this--except, maybe, as a joke. When did it become a stage act?

FRIEND: I started doing it at university, in the middle of the night at Union Night [a sort of Australian kegger] or whenever. If there was a band, I'd sneak up on stage and do a few tricks.

MORLEY: Friendy was making money out of hen's nights, as well--bachelorette parties.

FRIEND: So I'd sort of done a little bit, but not as a proper stage show. That evolved. I mean, the first time we ever did it [together] was at a pub as part of a comedy festival [in 1998], and the show only lasted 20-odd minutes. We had no structure, we rushed through it. We really pace it now. To tell you the truth, it wasn't until last year that we actually wrote down the script. It took two years for us to get to the point where we had a show; we used to improvise the whole thing pretty much. We just learned as we went along which were the better lines to introduce each trick.

MORLEY: We weren't expecting it to go all that far. We invited the serious theater critics to come and see our show when it was part of the Melbourne Comedy Festival. To our dismay, they really enjoyed it. They named it the Outright Best Show and all that stuff.

TM: So it began to get a reputation.

MORLEY: Yeah! Basically, we've just been waiting for someone to tell us to stop, but everyone keeps encouraging us. We did an Australian tour. Then we decided to take it to the Edinburgh Comedy Festival in Scotland, which is probably the greatest marketplace in the world for a show like this. In Edinburgh, we were very lucky: We sold nearly every ticket for every show and we were signed up for a West End season in our first week. When we hit the West End, all of a sudden we were working with music and lighting cues and stage managers.

TM: Were you theater people before that?

FRIEND: No! I don't know that I've ever been to the theater before.

MORLEY: We'd never worked on stage before this. I used to be a standup comedy promoter and manager, so I spent a fair amount of time in theaters, but backstage.

TM: Do you feel that Puppetry of the Penis offers any profound commentary about masculinity and the body, or is it just a lark?

MORLEY: We're well aware of the social implications of our show. It demands reaction, and everyone is getting something different out of it. You'll get an old lady who maybe hasn't seen many penises in her day or hasn't seen one in 20 years. She's always been told she's not allowed to laugh at a man's genitals; now she can sit there and look at one two stories high on a big screen, belly laugh at it for an hour, and not hurt anyone's feelings. And there's a lot of men out there, too. I think we break down some barriers as far as the homophobe thing.

TM: We're not supposed to look at penises either.

MORLEY: Exactly.

FRIEND: I think what we're doing is liberating the penis. And celebrating it.

Another moment fromPuppetry of the Penis
Another moment from
Puppetry of the Penis
TM: Do you guys have special penises or just special imaginations? Can anybody do this show?

FRIEND: I've got a special penis.

MORLEY: So his girlfriend tells him! Just to be clear on this, I haven't seen that many other penises. We've actually been doing some auditions lately, and Friendy and I have been looking at each other going, "Maybe we do have especially nice looking penises."

TM: Are there understudies?

MORLEY: He's an understudy. [Indicates younger brother Justin, who gives an enthusiastic "thumbs up."]

FRIEND: We've got three other Puppetry of the Penis crews, so that's eight penises.

TM: How much training did you give them?

MORLEY: There's only so much training you can actually give them before the baptism by fire, when you just put them in front of some people. No matter how long you've prepared someone for this, he's still going to forget everything and be frightened to death. We're a special breed. It's a calling!

TM: How long do you think you'll be able to keep this up? Hey, that was my first penis pun.

MORLEY: Very well done.

FRIEND: It's a minefield. I hit every one of them.

MORLEY: We won't be doing it too much longer, hopefully. We'd like to go out and break into some new territories, and just let some clone companies back us up.

FRIEND: This is the big one.

MORLEY: If we can make it in New York, we can make it anywhere.

TM: I've heard that. Were you especially nervous about bringing the show here?

MORLEY: We're confident with the product. We know that we're going to frighten a few people here and that it's not for everyone. We've had pretty good response so far, but it's a little different. We were back in the U.K. a few months ago, doing two or three thousand seat theaters, and it was very much rock n' roll dick tricks. In a smaller, more intimate environment like this, people are a lot more critical and a little more reserved.

TM: You may find that people are in the mood for something escapist--and this is as escapist as it gets.

MORLEY: I think so.

FRIEND: Leave all your issues, leave your brain at the door. Come in and have a good laugh.

TM: What do you guys hope to do next?

FRIEND: Rest my weary nuts. Sit on an island somewhere on a big bag of ice.

MORLEY: I'm going to have a long, hard think about it.

TM: Nice one.

FRIEND: We haven't had a rest. We've been doing eight shows a week for almost 13 months now.

TM: Is it still fun?

MORLEY: There are times, just before you go on, when you say, "Oh, I don't want to do this tonight." But as soon as you get out there and you start seeing the looks on people's faces, it's enjoyable. When people are killing themselves laughing, that's fine. We've got them. If someone is sitting there and not really having a good time, you'll find yourself zeroing in on him, making eye contact: "Come on, Jack! Get on board!"

FRIEND: "Don't look at my face! That's not where the fun is!"