Maybe it was the Women’s Studies major joke in which Dugan’s father asks his former girlfriend, “Women’s Studies? You go to school for four years just to learn how to cook?” (I took a Women’s Studies course or two at Vassar) or it could have been the “militant feminist lesbian chiropractor” joke, “She cracks my back and breaks my balls” (I was a member of the feminist alliance in college. I read Bitch magazine.) Early on in Mike Dugan’s one-man show, “Men Fake Foreplay,” adapted from his book by the same name and now playing at the Bethesda Theatre, I realized I wasn’t quite the target audience for either Dugan’s jokes or his message. Despite my skepticism and even criticism, however, I left with an appreciation for Dugan and what it is he’s attemping to convey.
I heard about the show several months ago on NPR, and was instantly titillated by the title. When I did a little more research, I found that much of the positive media material being used by Bethesda comes out of my hometown papers, The Post-Standard of Syracuse and the Syracuse New Times. Lo and behold, on the evening of the play, the 2006 reviews of the show from both those papers were among the information in the media I was given. My fellow Syracusans approved heartily of this play and I was immensely curious.
What Dugan is trying to get across through his jokes and anecdotes is that something about the way men are taught to conduct themselves, especially regarding their relationships to women, is a state of severe dysfunction. Dugan grew up in a Catholic community in New Jersey, so besides the normal cultural and societal standards of masculinity under which men are expected to function, he also knows more than a little about suppressing emotion and that little item we Catholic school products know so well: guilt. These forces combined with observation of his parents’ passive-agressive approach to their relationships left Dugan, by his admission, at a bit of a loss to understand how to comport himself when it came to women and relationships.
In the show, Dugan shares a chunk of his life experiences, infusing them with comedy in a way that was clearly relatable to the rest of the audience at the Bethesda Theatre. The first “act” was mostly jokey in the vein of the two-liners above. Luckily, the scope of the play broadened in the second half as Dugan got down to business, using the comfort he had built up with his audience to speak frankly and with more gravity. He reflects largely on a great relationship he screws up by sleeping with another woman and then lying about it. He recounts the soul-searching and extensive journaling (or, “writing the Captains Log; Guys avoid the word diary”) that followed.
While he doesn’t use any heavy theory, what Dugan attempts I think can be aptly called a dissertation on the social construction of masculinity. Guys are taught to ignore emotions when they come up, Dugan asserts, and are therefore ill-equipped to tackle them later when a relationship necessitates discussion. More than this, men’s sexual worlds are largely fantasy spaces, he says. Women may fantasize that Prince Charming is going to come to sweep them off their feet, but men hold onto the fantasy of “Cinderella and Snow White blowing us at the same time.” Jokes like this don’t exactly charm me into opening to Dugan’s message personally. But judging from my neighbor’s comment to that particular quip, “Ha, I never thought of it like that!” the comedy does have that effect on men who grew up like Dugan and the women who married them.
On the ride home from the theater, I realized that the early jokes of the play gave me the same feeling as being around your parents’ friends, when they discuss that great cultural construction: “The Battle of the Sexes.” In that, I mean that the conversation gets boiled down to those easy truisms (i.e. men don’t stop for directions, women take forever to get ready, never answer the question “Does this Make Me Look Fat?”) that seem too cliche, convenient and hokey to encapsulate the ambiguities of relationships for younger adults today. That isn’t to say these jokes don’t do important work – judging by the amount of laughter in the theater, Dugan held up a mirror to relationships that people recognized and appreciated.
And don’t get me wrong, I laughed too. Perhaps not too strangely however, at those jokes, my laughter echoed pretty much alone. Example one: A joke about asserting your masculinity through dove hunting that went the route of joking about obliterating literary symbolism (“For the Strunk and White Fans”). I love a good nerd joke. Example two: A joke about men evolutionarily protecting the home. “You don’t just let them know you’ve left the back door unfortified. In fact, men don’t want to acknowledge they even have a back door.” Apparently I was either the only one to get the “back door” joke, or I was the only one juvenile enough to project that onto the joke when it wasn’t there.
I guess the bottom line is that unless you’re Dugan’s target audience, going out of your way to see Men Fake Foreplay may be a misguided choice. However, once you’re there you’re going to laugh and come away with something to think about, whether you agree with Dugan’s message and delivery or not. While enjoying comedy requires you to relax some of your boundaries, it also has the ability to twist things into unconsidered shapes and this function is definitely employed in “Men Fake Foreplay.”