To the crowded ranks of narrators who’ve recounted brushes with mortality through a diagnosis of cancer, add the storyteller Jon Spelman. In his new one-man show, he amiably philosophizes about the surprising types of enlightenment that disease can offer you.
He calls it “The Prostate Dialogues,” a title wryly playing off “The Vagina Monologues,” Eve Ensler’s collection of solo pieces springing from a consideration of female sexuality and women’s lives. Spelman’s work, in its world premiere at Theater J, isn’t intended as a response to Ensler, exactly. The piece — a talk rather than a play — is not as literary or as thematically rich as “The Vagina Monologues,” its central concerns being the function and poetic implications of a gland to which men rarely give much thought, except as a potential incubator of cancer.
To the extent that Spelman, husband of choreographer Liz Lerman and a longtime professional tale-spinner, is a folksy, soothing, manly guide, “The Prostate Dialogues” is an agreeable way to spend 75 minutes. If you closed your eyes for just a moment, you could imagine Spelman speaking to you through your radio, as the featured voice on a segment on NPR.
The subject he’s mining, though, has been treated in the confessional form on many other occasions over the years, whether in memoirs and TV movies (Betty Rollin’s groundbreaking “First, You Cry”) or on stage (Julia Sweeney’s 1996 solo Broadway show, “God Said ‘Ha!’ ”). Margaret Edson won a Pulitzer Prize for her entry in the genre, “Wit,” a multi-character drama about a professor dying of ovarian cancer. Men, too, have created monodramas that are variations on this theme, although Spelman is perhaps the first to devote his to everything you’d ever want to know about a chestnut-sized male gland attached to the urethra.
These medical case histories with a human touch remind us of what we all could be up against.
“The Prostate Dialogues” is an account of Spelman’s physical travails — “I pee all the time; it’s a real drag” — and anxious decision-making before and after cancer has been detected. Some of his anecdotes trace the diagnostic courses and insults we’ve heard about before, the batteries of cystoscopies, colonoscopies and MRIs; the doctors who don’t listen and technicians who disappear just when you need them most.
The more explicit aspects of Spelman’s “Dialogues” have to do with the prostate’s role in the male reproductive process, and the journey the narrator takes to learn about the potential side effects of having the gland removed. This leads him to the meetings of self-help groups whose conversations revolve around erectile dysfunction and various types of penile prosthetic devices. Even if you learn here that the ancient Sumerians worshipped an erect ancestor, tumescence never quite develops into the most engrossing of topics.
Director Jerry Whiddon rightly steers Spelman on a direct and unaffected route; the talk is delivered on the set of another play,” Freud’s Last Session,” currently running in the space at the D.C. Jewish Community Center. The informality allows the speaker’s warmth to fill the room, as he shares the life-affirming outlook that, despite the material’s familiarity, compels us all to wish him well.
Created and performed by Jon Spelman. Directed by Jerry Whiddon. About 75 minutes. Tickets, $15-$30. Through June 29 at D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Visit www.theaterj.org or call