Eve Ensler may have started out as a downtown playwright, but she’ll surely go down in history as the woman who brought the vagina to Madison Square Garden. It’s irrelevant whether you think The Vagina Monologues is a great play; it now exists in the realm of the cultural spectacle, one that gathers women together for a good old consciousness-raising session. Ensler has said that “if every woman in the world stood up and joined hands, saying violence against us must end now, it would end.” It’s this moony-eyed belief that led her to transform her Obie-winning play into a global fundraising behemoth.
The Vagina Monologues featured a showstopping piece about the rape of Bosnian women. Necessary Targets, Ensler’s new play, is based on interviews with women who survived civil war in the former Yugoslavia. At times this source material translates into didacticism and fragmentation, as if dozens of conversations had been artificially crammed into a narrative. It also provides some edgy dialogue and poignant performances, not to mention an opportunity for Ensler to do some provocative soul searching about her methods.
Necessary Targets transports two American women to a Bosnian refugee camp to conduct therapy sessions with a group of female war victims. J.S. (Shirley Knight), a well-respected Park Avenue psychiatrist, arrives at the dingy site with a full set of designer luggage, only to be taken down to size by plucky young trauma counselor Melissa (Catherine Kellner, who plays the role like Sarah Jessica Parker clad in khaki). Melissa is a war-zone junkie, having already made the scene in Haiti and Rwanda; J.S. is more comfortable treating Upper East Side anorexics. Yet it is J.S. who shatters her dignified shell and thrives on the emotional connection she forges with the traumatized women, while Melissa remains distant, knowing that she’ll move on to another set of victims next week. Melissa keeps the Bosnian women at arm’s length with her tape recorder, which she uses to capture their woeful tales for a book of refugees’ stories, a project not unlike Ensler’s.
Some of the women willingly offer their true confessions to Melissa—particularly Nuna (luminously played by Maria Thayer), a teen who adores Madonna and dreams of visiting shopping malls again. She buys into Western psychotherapy with exuberance. Zlata (Diane Venora), on the other hand, is infuriated by these pompous foreigners, “story vultures” who believe that making her talk about the horrors she experienced will diminish them. “What do you think we were talking about before you came?” she asks witheringly.
Although Zlata is the linchpin of the production, Venora’s performance is wildly uneven. Early on she plays Zlata’s defensiveness with bombastic overkill, as an emotionally damaged intellectual channeling the drunken, booming persona of Boris Yeltsin. But eventually her bluster gives way to a more nuanced portrayal that yields most of the evening’s tearjerkers and laughs (like a crack about the French government sending skin cleansers in the middle of an ethnic cleansing). You can see most of the play’s revelations coming a kilometer away, but they are well acted enough to detonate tiny emotional explosions here and there.
Unfortunately, Necessary Targets strays into clichéd territory once or twice too often. Jelena (Alyssa Bresnahan), the saucy cook, makes cringe-inducing comparisons between sardines and refugees; even J.S., whom Knight plays with tremulous sensitivity, woodenly bemoans the damage that men have wreaked in the world. And the central moment of communion between J.S. and her patients is played out in a stiffly staged party scene: The women dance and carouse, singing native folk songs and knocking back bottles of booze like some bleary stereotype of stout Balkan womanhood.
Like The Vagina Monologues, Necessary Targets is based on the idea of the talking cure. But this time Ensler’s vision is clouded by ambivalence. Of the two Americans, J.S. emerges as the heroine who finds her humanity by allowing the women to seek help in their own time and their own way. Melissa, though, is the epitome of Western arrogance, glossing over Zlata’s rage at being exploited and patronizingly explaining to J.S.: “Let them despise us. We are necessary targets. . . . They tell their stories and we record them. It helps them heal.” Yet it seems that the public airing of their stories does very little for the victims, who remain trapped in a wasteland (or a stage set) full of rubble and land mines, with little food and few prospects for a return to full normality. Ensler, meanwhile, returns to New York to dramatize their tales and put them on a stage, to much applause and a standing ovation.