×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Vagina Monologues

How deliciously apt that Eve Ensler should return to New York with her "Vagina Monologues" just as Mayor Giuliani conducts his embarrassingly juvenile jihad against a piece of elephant dung. Among the many other issues Ensler's spellbinding, funny and almost unbearably moving solo performance raises is the terrible price people may pay for submitting to cultural taboos.

How deliciously apt that Eve Ensler should return to New York with her “Vagina Monologues” just as Mayor Giuliani conducts his embarrassingly juvenile jihad against a piece of elephant dung. Among the many other issues Ensler’s spellbinding, funny and almost unbearably moving solo performance raises is the terrible price people may pay for submitting to cultural taboos. Such censorship — and self-censorship — can hobble and warp not just sexuality but the spirit itself, this startling piece of theater reminds us, and much sorrow and confusion and loss have been occasioned by a “Christian” propriety that includes silence on the subject of sex among its social diktats.

“The Vagina Monologues” has been seen widely since its Gotham premiere Off Broadway in 1996. It has won awards and traveled internationally, and helped raise funds, with the aid of big-name celebrity readings, for organizations that seek to end violence against women, whether domestic, cultural or criminal.

That may make it sound very worthy and politically correct, a theatrical form of ’60s-style consciousness-raising. And indeed it does raise one’s consciousness — but then so does most good art, in one way or another.

“The Vagina Monologues” does much more, as well. It rubs insistently at the funny bone, sometimes gently, sometimes violently. It alternately warms and saddens the heart, it occasionally shocks the sensibility, it sears the soul. Now in a limited run Off Broadway, in a polished and attractive production supervised by Joe Mantello, it deserves to be a sellout again on wildfire word of mouth.

Sitting on a tall chair center stage, her ruby lips smiling slyly from beneath a sharp black bob, Ensler begins the show by describing its gestation in a series of interviews with women of various ages and races on the subject of, uh, their genitalia. (I’m a man of my culture: I can’t be as frank in my writing as Ensler so commendably is.) Ensler distilled the results into a series of monologues, some based on a single interview, some thematic collages culled from many.

Although they all treat very specifically women’s attitudes toward their sexuality and identity as it is linked to perceptions of their bodies, the monologues manage to encompass an astonishing range of experience. In one quietly devastating passage, Ensler impersonates an elderly woman recalling the moment in her youth when she closed herself off to sexual pleasure after a sudden arousal inspired ignorant scorn in her date.

Elsewhere Ensler reminds us of the still more sinister ways in which men continue to express their strange primal fear of women’s sexuality, describing the cruel practice of genital mutilation that is visited upon some 2 million (mostly) African women a year.

From interviews with survivors of a Bosnian rape camp, Ensler has woven together a chilling evocation of the crippling emotional dislocation rape can result in; from a Southern black woman’s history of sexual abuse springs a surprisingly comic tale of emotional redemption. There are incantatory meditations on erotic pleasure, pungent celebrations of sexual discovery, fantastically silly lists of euphemisms for the vagina.

Ensler’s language throughout is specific and surprising, elegantly shaped and always redolent of the real human voices it is rooted in. Although she is perfectly adept at the mild character sketches she draws, Ensler is not really an actress, and that’s as it should be — paradoxically, a fully dramatized delivery might detract from the truthfulness of the performance.

The evening concludes with a passage of breathtaking beauty: Ensler’s description of the delivery of a child that vividly evokes the wonder and strife and pain of our perilous passage into life. Written with a bluntness that is nevertheless intensely lyrical, it gently draws together the myriad emotional strands of this indelible theatrical experience, which is both a work of art and an incisive piece of cultural history, a poem and a polemic, a performanceand a balm and a benediction.

The Vagina Monologues

Westside Theater, New York; 249 seats; $45 top

Production: A David Stone, Willa Shalit, Nina Essman, Dan Markley/Mike Skipper and the Araca Group presentation of a solo performance in one act written and performed by Eve Ensler. Production supervised by Joe Mantello.

Creative: Set, Loy Arcenas; lighting, Beverly Emmons; production stage manager, Barnaby Harris. Opened Oct. 3, 1999. Reviewed Sept 30. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

More Legit

  • Laurie Metcalf, John Lithgow'Hillary and Clinton'

    Why John Lithgow Worried About Starring in Broadway's 'Hillary and Clinton'

    When Lucas Hnath first conceived of “Hillary and Clinton” in 2008, he was writing for and about a very different America. Now, a total reimagining of the show has made its way to Broadway with Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in the titular roles. At the opening on Thursday night, the cast and creatives talked [...]

  • Three Sisters review

    London Theater Review: 'Three Sisters'

    Ennui has become exhaustion in playwright Cordelia Lynn’s new version of “Three Sisters.” The word recurs and recurs. Everyone on the Prozorov estate is worn out; too “overworked” to do anything but sit around idle. Are they killing time or is time killing them? Either way, a play often framed as a study of boredom [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Took 12 Years to Get to Broadway, but It's More Relevant Than Ever

    When “Hadestown” was first staged as a tiny, DIY theater project in Vermont, those involved could never have predicted that it was the start of a 12-year journey to Broadway — or how painfully relevant it would be when it arrived. At Wednesday night’s opening at the Walter Kerr Theatre, the cast and creatives discussed [...]

  • Hillary and Clinton review

    Broadway Review: Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in 'Hillary and Clinton'

    If anyone could play Hillary Clinton, it’s Laurie Metcalf – and here she is, in Lucas Hnath’s “Hillary and Clinton,” giving a performance that feels painfully honest and true. And if anyone could capture Bill Clinton’s feckless but irresistible charm, that would be John Lithgow – and here he is, too. Who better to work [...]

  • Hadestown review

    Broadway Review: 'Hadestown'

    “Hadestown” triggered a lot of buzz when this wholly American show (which came to the stage by way of a concept album) premiered at Off Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop in 2016. Arriving on Broadway with its earthly delights more or less intact, this perfectly heavenly musical — with book, music and lyrics by Anaïs [...]

  • Burn This review

    Broadway Review: Adam Driver, Keri Russell in 'Burn This'

    The ache for an absent artist permeates Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This,” now receiving a finely-tuned Broadway revival that features incendiary performances by Adam Driver and Keri Russell, playing two lost souls in a powerful and passionate dance of denial. AIDS is never mentioned in this 1987 play, yet the epidemic and the profound grief that [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content