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Carl Djerassi's play pits science against art, but it's the audience that comes out the loser.

Simon Jones and Lisa Harrow in Phallacy
(© Richard Termine)
Science is pitted against art in Carl Djerassi's Phallacy, but it's the audience that comes out the loser. Statically directed by Elena Araoz, this new work at the Cherry Lane Theatre is filled with bad dialogue and unrealistic plot twists.

The play's primary conflict is between Dr. Regina Leitner-Opfermann (Lisa Harrow), a respected art historian at a museum in Vienna, and Dr. Rex Stolzfuss (Simon Jones), a noted chemist. Using state of the art techniques, Rex has determined that a bronze sculpture in the museum's antiquities collection is not a Roman original as Regina had put forth in a book on the subject, but was instead cast in the 16th Century. Worried about both her own reputation as well as the museum's, Regina at first refuses to believe him, and then plots to come up with an alternative hypothesis that will allow her to save face. A secondary conflict arises between Emma Finger (Carrie Heitman), a Renaissance specialist that the museum assigns to assist Regina, and her boyfriend Dr. Otto Ellenbogen (Vince Nappo), who happens to be Rex's assistant.

The initial encounter between Rex and Regina feels extremely forced, with the latter hurling insults at the former before he's said anything to deserve them. A certain level of acrimony is to be expected given the situation, but both Rex and Regina are portrayed more like caricatures than flesh and blood people.

It's also difficult to believe some of the twists and turns in the plot. For example, Regina sends Emma to France in search of evidence that the true Roman original of the sculpture exists there. Once Rex finds out about this, he concocts a scheme that involves forging a nearly exact duplication of portions of the sculpture in order to humiliate Regina. Otto disguises himself as a Frenchman who tries to sell these pieces to her, playing on her belief that the original was in France.

Even if the audience could accept that Rex would go to the expense and trouble to make these replicas -- which are not only visually accurate, but also reflect the correct chemical makeup of Roman bronze -- it's impossible to think that Regina wouldn't do a background check on the person selling the merchandise.

Djerassi also includes flashbacks to 1572, which eventually explain the reasons why the museum's sculpture came into being. However, these sequences are awkwardly handled, and interrupt the forward momentum of the play's action.

The acting is similarly problematic. Harrow has a commanding presence, but was rather shaky on her lines at the performance I attended, while Jones tends to telegraph his intentions in too broad a manner. Nappo has a boyish charm, but isn't able to give much dimension to his portrayal of Otto. Heitman does what she can with an underwritten part, and succeeds in making Emma the most sympathetic figure within the play.

The show's title, by the way, is a play on words deriving from the fact that Regina's obsessive devotion to the sculpture has a blind spot when it comes to its phallus. The rather misogynistic point that the playwright seems to be making is that if Regina had paid more attention to the penis, she could have avoided her downfall.