The Prostate Dialogues

by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

Theater J’s finale to its fine 2013–2014 season turns out to be a surprisingly poignant solo performance about a man’s privates. Storyteller Jon Spelman is our genial guide; the genitals in question are his; and the show is suitable for a general adult audience—even the bits that border on too much information. Judging from the laughter that punctuated Spelman’s spunky spiel, the folks at the opening matinee—among whom were many 50-plus married couples—were enjoying it a lot. Which you might not expect of a man’s monologue about having prostate cancer.

Artistic Director Ari Roth says in a program note that The Prostate Dialogues grew out of “an idea for a play about male sexuality and mortality” and that the project has “gone through 34 drafts over the past two years of cultivation and development.” That’s a lot of TLC, and a credit to Theater J’s courageous convictions. As it happens, the world premiere of this theater piece is now playing on stage on the same set designed by Debra Booth that is being used for Freud’s Last Session (a coincidence that would surely have intrigued Sigmund).

Spelman tells the story of his symptoms, his diagnosis, the physical and emotional effects, his fears, his nightmares. He reveals his failed but funny efforts to find a men’s support group. He takes us along on treks. He shares with us intimate details of his relationships with his wife and grown daughter. He tickles us and touches us. Even as he entertains us, he lets us see his vulnerability.

And that vulnerability is what most makes this theater piece remarkable. Culture is crowded with young men’s crowing about the invincibility of their equipage, their priapic impertinence, their coital conquests. Against that backdrop of porn-fueled posturing, hearing a man reflect on his genitals as an actual grownup—at an age when real life, real relationships, and real physical changes have dispelled those adolescent fantasies and delusions—is refreshing and liberating.

There’s a fascinating passage in Spelman’s piece when he talks about coming to understand that the penis is “a concept.” What he means is, the phallus has been prized and worshiped for eons—he cites several ancient civilizations—but all that baggage does not actually fit one’s personal package. Experientially, there’s a whole other world going on down there—a world in which Spelman is now a voyager who has set out to tell the truth.

He is ably assisted by Director Jerry Whiddon, Lighting Designer Dan Wagner, and Lighting Design Adapter  Garth Dolan, who all bring polish to the production. The sound design (Sound Engineer Capital City Sound, Sound Board Operator Tamar Gasko) is particularly apt in the way it gives the storytelling dimension.

At the performance I saw, Spelman seemed not yet fully in command of the script; he now and then took a split second to mentally call up his next line, so there was a sense this is still a work in progress. But without fail, Spelman always found the authenticity within. The unspoken that now he can say. The demythologizing that now he can do.

Spelman embodies an exemplary honesty about his emotions and male anatomy—something that The Prostate Dialogues will surely embolden more men to do.

Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission.