“One day I realized that the self-hatred had just crept up,” says Eve Ensler in “The Good Body,” explaining why her new show’s focal point is no longer below the waist but just above. Namely, it’s the writer-performer’s “not-so-flat, post-40 stomach,” whose slight protuberance drives this solo tour through women’s body-image issues. To call “The Good Body” an exercise in navel-gazing is thus a statement of literal fact as well as opinion.
Some may have a different opinion, of course. Just as prior smash “The Vagina Monologues” struck a popular chord with ideas that had been explored in feminist theater and performance art for decades (as Ensler well knows), so “Body” should build on that success to again draw myriad patrons who’ve probably never heard of Karen Finley … and wouldn’t care to, either.
Ensler’s standup shtick and somewhat underwhelming skill as a multicharacter thesp, as well as the variable depth to her material, are more obvious this time around, at least in the show’s pre-New York City form at American Conservatory Theater. (It’s skedded to hit Broadway in September.) Still, the slickly packaged, intermissionless evening, directed with smooth efficiency by Peter Askin, drew many an approving yelp and affirming sigh from its opening-night aud.
As with “Vagina Monologues,” the potential is there for guest actors to divvy up character bits on a short-run or benefit basis, upping not only box office appeal but the overall performance quality.
On Robert Brill’s interesting all-white sculptural set of fashion-shoot-setup flanked by four rows of spectator seats (just one occupied by a “perfectly” thin female mannequin), Ensler first appears following a slide show of progressively unrealistic feminine “ideals” though the ages. There’s Barbie, there’s Twiggy and then … there’s Eve, relating how her all-consuming childhood goal was to be “good” in the “pretty, perky” mode of 1950s and ’60s role models.
Failing that, her guilty adult “badness” assumed many forms. More severe demons having since been conquered, she now concentrates all angst on that midsection spare tire, which isn’t much — bicycle thickness at most — for a woman newly past 50.
Nonetheless, she worries about it like Rhoda Morgenstern on neurotic overdrive, chanting, “Let me be hungry, let me shrink,” proclaiming “Bread is Satan,” even “praying daily for a parasite.” She hires a fascistic physical trainer, tries various diets, goes to a “fat camp,” considers liposuction. But mostly she talks to a rainbow coalition of women whose individual testimonies illustrate the continuum of body-image wisdom and victimization.
Among them are a couple of celebrities. Pioneer of women’s free-at-last-to-please-men! ethos Helen Gurley Brown is seen still struggling to be a “Cosmo Girl” at 80, face “lifted” tight as a mini-trampoline. Isabella Rossellini laughs off her dismissal as spokeswoman because the cosmetic company can’t accept anyone might still be “the most beautiful woman in the world” at the ancient age of 40.
But most of Ensler’s characters are presumably fictive composites inspired by interviews with women in 40 countries (or so we’re told). Despite all that research, her unsubtle writing and un-nuanced acting tend to deliver near-stereotypes who either wisecrack in ka-boom-cha! terms or provide a five-minute fast track to victim-scenario tearjerking.
On the funny front, there’s the fat ‘n’ sassy African-American girl who abhors “skinny bitches”; a Puerto Rican woman both proud and ashamed of her ample backside “spread”; a corporate-world lesbian secreting pierced nipples like a delicious hidden identity; an executive whose Botox-frozen smile happily masks her cutthroat attitude.
More tragic figures include Italian Nina, still a degraded sex toy after she’s had removed the large breasts that had objectified her; the Beverly Hills wife who undergoes surgery to narrow her vaginal canal, only to find sex with her deliriously re-excited husband now excruciating; and an African woman starving herself to death because she wants to be like “a pretty skinny girl on your (American) TV show.”
Ensler’s accents are rough approximations — no dialect coach is credited — and sometimes it’s hard to tell at first whether she’s playing a new character, reprising one or being “herself.” The latter dominates, in any case, providing blunt insights (“I was desperate to please my father,” “When my partner rubs my stomach, I wanna vomit,” etc.), often crude laugh lines (she’s closer in style than she’d like to think to such lounge-act bawds as Totie Fields and Sophie Tucker) and general whining that seems a tad depressing coming from a self-described 30-year activist and feminist theater vet.
Seldom getting far past bright patter and talkshow-style empathy, she reveals her own insecurities, but only as grist for the same mill. Sheer self-absorption beats critical self-analysis, hands down. Yet this sort of Enlightenment Lite definitely strikes a chord for viewers who may find something like excellent 1990 documentary “The Famine Within” (which likewise aimed to cover the full range of women’s contempo body issues) too bitter a pill.
It isn’t until Ensler travels to spiritual-tourism nexus India, then meets Taliban-oppressed women in Afghanistan, that she’s able to put her own hangups in some perspective, at least for the moment. She concludes with this flag-waving, goddess-hugging realization: “My eating ice cream is less important than my being free!” Even a Cosmo Girl could agree with that.