As the title’s pun suggests, Phallacy amounts to a 90-minute penis joke. The fact that the joke is told by Carl Djerassi, inventor of oral contraceptives and one of the world’s leading chemists, makes it funnier, but does not fully redeem this exhibition of puerile professional one-upmanship couched in a lecture.
Reviewed by Ilena George
In Djerassi’s Phallacy, art and science butt heads, step on one another’s toes and refuse to see eye-to-eye. Based on a real-life incident, an art historian and her assistant struggle against a chemist and his assistant to get to the truth behind a sculpture assumed to belong to Roman antiquity and later proven to be a Renaissance copy of an ancient sculpture. The accomplished ensemble cast makes their two-dimensional characters likeable but the play's flaw lies in its story: Djerassi mines what is possibly the least compelling aspect of the statue’s story in what becomes a childish and dull debate of the merits of art history versus those of chemistry through a technologically sophisticated prank war.
From the staging to the plot, the play hangs on its characters’ unwillingness to see what is directly in front of them. Dr. Regina Leitner-Opfermann (Lisa Harrow), director of the antiquities division of Austria’s premiere art museum, has literally written the book on a sculpture of a young man she has long attributed to the Roman period. When challenged by scientific evidence presented by chemist Dr. Rex Stolzfuss (Simon Jones) about the sculpture’s anachronistic elemental composition—too few trace elements in the bronze for the technology of the Roman period—Dr. Leitner-Opfermann shrilly refuses to acknowledge Dr. Stolzfuss’ research, just as she chooses to ignore some of her own research that casts doubt on what she chooses to believe about the statue. In a fit of pique, during which Jones practically rolls his eyes at her and winks at us, she throws Stolzfuss out of her office, sparking a race between the two sides, who share the stage but not a common purpose, to see who will be the first to publish conclusive proof as to the statue’s true origin.
Underlying this clash is an ill-fated love story. Dr. Leitner-Opfermann’s young colleague Emma (Carrie Heitman) and Stolzfuss’s assistant Otto (Vince Nappo) are in a secret and somewhat contrived relationship. Their relationship becomes a pawn in the power play between the two professional heavyweights as Dr. Stolzfuss uses information Otto gleaned from Emma to trick Dr. Leitner-Opfermann with pieces replicating her beloved statue, with one small but important adjustment Dr. Stolzfuss knew Dr. Leitner-Opfermann would overlook: the angle of the statue’s penis.
The human element gets lost quickly in this world where professional achievement means everything. Nappo and Heitman, while their performances are solid, lack real chemistry and their pairing seems doomed from the outset. Dr. Leitner-Opfermann’s marriage also failed and she develops a sensual but asexual relationship to the statue; she is intensely aware of each of the statue’s parts but pointedly skipping over any mention of his reproductive organs. Harrow shines in her description of the statue and her level of attention to its details; she conveys a wistful longing both for the object and for what she has had to sacrifice in pursuing it.
But the play’s real emotional core remains lodged in dimly lit flashbacks to an interaction between a soldier and a veiled woman, whose “costumes” are cleverly projected onto Nappo and Harrow. The soldier tells us he is Don Juan of Austria (bastard son of Hapsburg King Charles V and brother of Philip II) and the Austrian villager who hides behind a veil reveals her identity as Don Juan’s mother. Along with their identities, the pair reveal to us the statue’s true origins, an issue the present-day characters will continue to squabble over until the last possible moment.
Any elementary school student could have stepped in and offered these characters a lecture on compromise. The play flirts briefly with the idea that there is room for art in science, science in art, a personal life in addition to a professional one, but the conclusion leans more toward the idea that to be truly devoted to your discipline, you need to serve it with a slavish dedication that shuts out all else.
By Carl Djerassi
Directed by Elena Araoz
May 18-June 10
Tuesday through Saturday, 8PM
Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, 3PM
Tickets ($35), 212-239-6200 or 800-432-7250
Cherry Lane Theater
38 Commerce St.
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