Q: How are men like floor tiles?
A: You lay them right the first time, and you can walk all over them for years.
This is a cock joke only implicitly, but it’s the best one in my personal repertoire. It may or may not be “funny ’cause it’s true,” as an ex of mine is fond of half-joking, but it is a pretty representative take on our curious cultural ambivalence about the male organ: A dual smirk and high-five for the penis’s commonly perceived singlemindedness. These days, a penis is a complicated beast. Just ask one. You’ll come up with a mouthful from The Penis Responds, a two-man touring show of short scenes performed by Josh Bressette and Billy Butler, written by Oscar winning playwright Ernest Thompson (On Golden Pond), and now playing at the Portland Performing Arts Center’s Studio Theater. Through a series of roles and relationships — father and son, shrink and patient, man and the rod itself — The Penis Responds opens the sort of candid, body-centered conversation more often associated with feminism and Women’s Studies (cf The Vagina Monologues), and invites the penis to poke its head into the discussion.
“The truth is, penises are everywhere,” Butler glibly announces near the show’s beginning, playing a “Penis Anonymous” barker, and he’s certainly got that right. I guarantee that in no other cultural amusement of the summer will you hear the word “penis,” or any of its aliases, pronounced so many hundreds of times. In this show, we encounter penises from across a spectrum of circumstances and positions. We hear about the massive lexicon of penis euphemisms, listen to a dark barroom consideration of rape, and watch a prison dude and his potential new bitch illustrate the connection between money and sexual prowess. As twelve characters apiece, Bressette and Butler are cocksure. Their performance is far from flaccid, instead loud, energetic, and over the top, and both men swing easily between roles as different as children, rednecks, rapists, actors, and regular Joes, gamely changing their costumes right on stage.
The Penis Responds is billed as a play about “the world’s most exaggerated yet misunderstood piece of the human anatomy.” What’s a little bemusing is that, rather than acting as an antidote to that exaggeration and misunderstanding, much of the play is actually often an exercise in caricature. We are, as it were, hammered with it. While a few scenes are played straight — a meeting between a priest and a man he once molested, for example — many of them come off as aggressively cartoonish: This is certainly entertaining, but how much exaggeration and misunderstanding are banished by anthropomorphizing the penis as a six-foot man in an eyepatch and a pink bathing cap? The Penis Responds struggles between holding the penis up for laughs and trying to make it talk from the heart.