Neither heads nor tails

"The Best American Travel Writing of 2000" features the brilliant, bizarre, funny story "Winter Rules," by Steve Rushin of "Sports Illustrated." It's a side-splitting tale about ice golfing in Greenland. When talking about local cuisine, Rushin quotes some descriptive text about reindeer stomach: "It is neither delicious nor revolting, but somewhere in between."

That is how I would describe "The Puppetry of the Penis," a show which, like a patch of pansies growing out of a volcanic rock, has found itself flourishing in a place you'd never have thought it would. It seems like the kind of thing that should have stayed in the bathroom of a bored and very lonely man, or in the treasure chest of memories of two men who spent a drunken evening together that they will never tell their sweethearts about. Where it ended up is off-Broadway at the John Houseman Theater.

The title is self-explanatory: two men making shapes out of their genitals for an audience. The two young Aussies who started the show have left it, presumably for jobs that don't involve publicly swinging their wangs around like lassos. They were replaced by two new Aussies, Daniel Lewry and Jim MacGregor, who make a grand entrance wearing nothing but long capes and sneakers, and within minutes lose the capes and are bending their schlongs like balloon-folders and making clever dick-related jokes while they're at it. The shapes they make out of their own genitals include the "snail," the "pelican," the "Eiffel Tower" and the "baby kangaroo" inside its mothers pouch.

Tough act to follow

Wait. You're squinting. Let me help. Here's a graphic description of how they made the Loch Ness monster, so you can really see it in your mind, as I'm sure you'll want to: Take testicles and move off to one side, creating the serpent's body. Take penis and make into an upside down "J," facing the opposite way from the testicles, providing the monsters neck and head. Voila! Nessie! And as with Nessie, nobody fully believes what they're seeing. (If you don't have male genitals handy, substitute a couple of kiwi fruits and a sock.) The finished shapes were projected onto a giant screen behind the players, in case people in the back didn't get a good enough look. And, well, a penis the size of a couch is not as pretty as one might think, and one derives a great sense of empathy for Faye Wray and the eyeful she must have gotten on her first date with King Kong.

Having naked men cavorting around in front of you isn't as pretty as you might think, either. I felt much the way one does when you see a couple fighting or a dog pooping on the sidewalk: I shouldn't be witnessing this. Two other girls and I, sitting in a row, reacted with definite and identical body language: one crossed arm, one hand over the mouth, i.e., "Oh my God" and "Don't come near me."

I laughed the whole time. How can you not? When men are stand before you stretching their bathing-suit parts into shapes such as "baby bird," "hamburger" and "didgeridoo," you laugh because it's funny. It's also embarrassing and bizarre, and the mix makes laughter inevitable. The audience reacted appreciatively and included a boy about 11 years old and a man, sitting behind him, who looked blankly at the two performers with the "You'd better be kidding," expression of a father whose son just swore that the drugs in his car belonged to a friend.

Don't try this at home

I've heard "Penis" described as the male response to "The Vagina Monologues." I read the script of the latter, however, and at no point remember naked women showing how they can make a butterfly, a lily or the Cingular Wireless logo.

Speaking of women, I wonder how many who have viewed this, at some point, got drunk and tried to make a muppet out of their partner's willie. The guys onstage make this Stretch Armstrong/ Plastic Man activity look so easy, it seems almost silly not to try it on someone else. The physical pain would seem minor compared to the emotional trauma brought on by one's partner wanting to see "what it looks like as a pelican," and, of course, laughing right at it, which would probably lead to breakups, if not mental collapse. Also, I asked a man and found out that this is not something they all do, even in childhood. Most never think, "I wonder what it would look like as a greyhound," and put a champagne cork wire over it. Just these guys.

So, like the reindeer stomach (in which Rushin finds a metaphor for life), these penis puppets were neither delicious, nor revolting. I laughed, but the anticipation of going was more thrilling than having gone. I didn't flee the room, but I didn't bring it up in conversation often thereafter. And the bottom line is that I can say whatever I want, but I'm the one who paid to see genital puppetry. So who's the real wiener?


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