Does size really matter? That’s the question at the heart of Martin Casella’s play, which has just opened at the Above the Stag Theatre following an off-Broadway run earlier this year.
The play takes place during a self-help session hosted by Father Kevin Shaunessey for four Irish- American New Yorkers all afflicted (as the Father also is) with the ‘Irish Curse’ – as gay cop Stephen puts it, a penis “the size of a cocktail wiener.” As the story progresses, the audience discovers how this has affected the lives of the characters in differing ways.
The five men are painted with broad brush strokes and serve an almost allegorical function, each embodying a different aspect of male identity. Frat boy Rick swaggers around with a sock stuffed down his trousers, boasting of his sexual conquests; bitchy Stephen is into blowjobs but not names; Joseph (“not Joey”) is an uptight lawyer with a crumpled coat and a wife who’s left him; Father Kevin is a kindly, salt-of-the-earth man whose commitment to God began with a broken heart; and rosy- cheeked Irish immigrant Kieron is a first-timer at the group who’s marrying the love of his life at the weekend.
What irritates about these characters is not that they are stereotypes but that their stories develop along such predicable lines. For example, would you be surprised to learn that Rick’s Don Juan lifestyle is a fiction he employs to bolster his self-esteem, or that Stephen’s promiscuity is motivated by a fear of intimacy? These are not revelations, they are inevitabilities. And when there is a twist (the reason why Kieron has ended up at the meeting) it is framed in such a melodramatic way as to be disengaging rather than moving. Nevertheless, it makes a refreshing change to encounter a character in the priesthood whose secret is not that he is gay or a paedophile.
The main issue is not so much that the characters conform to type – theatre that exhibits a compulsive need to subvert expectation can be extremely frustrating – but that their dialogue locks out the audience. No action is taken or comment made without its meaning being carefully explained by someone else on the stage. No sooner does Stephen describe another guy as “packing” a big penis than Joseph embarks a speech about how significant it is that he talks about cocks in terms of guns. It’s as if Casella doesn’t quite trust us to draw our own conclusions.
Perhaps part of the problem is the self-help group setting. There’s something static and rather un- theatrical about a situation in which people stand up and take turns to talk about their issues. This is exacerbated by the sometimes cheesy nature of the characters’ exchanges. No one quite says “I love you, man” but they get close to it.
This is a shame, because when the characters are properly allowed to bounce off one another it can lead to some very funny moments. One highlight is a whistle-stop tour of countries of the world which ends with the conclusion that all major wars begin with penis envy. It certainly casts the first Irish-American elected president, John F Kennedy, in an interesting light.
You’ll also leave the theatre with a greatly expanded repertoire of small-penis metaphors, including the evocative “a ball with a tit”.
Casella also has some interesting things to say about the relationship between penis size, body image and social inclusion. Stephen’s obsession with categorising cock size according to ethnic stereotypes – he’s in particular awe of Italians and “Polacks” – creates a social system in which length replaces preconceptions about race and class as the measure of importance. Elsewhere, Joseph’s anxiety about his wife looking up more well-endowed men on the internet and in magazines is a witty inversion of traditional gender roles.
The Irish Curse has some belly-laughs, heartfelt performances and affecting moments. Ultimately, though, too much overly earnest dialogue and restrictive characterisation conspire to ensure that this play isn’t quite as interesting, funny or provocative as its premise may suggest.
(At Above the Stag, 4-30 October 2010)
Reviewed for musicOMH