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Theater Review: “The Prostate Dialogues” at Theater J

The one-man show explores the topic of illness with humor and heart.

Performer Jon Spelman talks about his battle with cancer in The Prostate Dialogues. Photograph by Stan Barouh.

The Prostate Dialogues, undeniably, is a little like having an older relative talk to you for 75 minutes about his recent health problems. Luckily, that “uncle” is a much better storyteller than most.

The storyteller in question is Jon Spelman, a stage veteran (and current resident of Baltimore) who not too long ago found himself stricken with prostate cancer. The Prostate Dialogues was written by Spelman as part of Theater J’s Locally Grown playwriting program, and Spelman is both the creator of the autobiographical piece and the show’s sole performer. (The play conveniently borrows the set being used by the theater program for Freud’s Last Session, running concurrently.) 

Spelman takes the audience from his initial symptoms through his diagnosis—which took some time for the doctors to determine—and through his treatment and recovery, all in a frank and funny fashion. He also touches on the other challenges thrown his family’s way during this tough time, including a scary car accident that his wife, choreographer Liz Lerman, managed to make it through relatively unscathed. 

It takes a certain lack of vanity to talk in graphic detail about prostate problems and the rather humbling experience of being poked and prodded in that particular area of the body. Spelman has an engaging delivery style that rambles naturally. He’s conversational rather than showy, and has a talent for finding the humor in everyday situations in a way that doesn’t seem forced or staged. He doesn’t shy away from the more squeamish aspects of his experience, and The Prostate Dialogues feels educational rather than exploitative. 

It can be a challenge to remain completely invested in the narrow topic for the entirety of The Prostate Dialogues, though Spelman’s shift from his own journey to the way life’s unexpected struggles can impact others, including his wife and partner, is an abrupt one. The show wraps up neatly, if a little preachily. While never feels like a public service announcement for preventive care, it wouldn’t be surprising if some audience members finally got around to that nagging physical after hearing what the actor went through. But it does feel like Spelman worked hard to try to bring the play toward a broader, more universal message about mortality. The Prostate Dialogues is an effective reminder of how fleeting life can be, even if Spelman came out ahead in his own little confrontation with death.

The Prostate Dialogues is at Theater J through June 29. Running time is about 75 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($30) are available through Theater J’s website