In "The Good Body," Eve Ensler's insightful, entertaining and often hilarious sermonette on the tyranny of physical perfection, the middle-age performer does something more daring than just baring her soul.
She bares her stomach.
It's the one part of her body, where, Ensler says, "badness" resides, and, as a consequence, she will do anything within her power to flatten it out of existence. At least that's what she was taught growing up in the 1950s when "'good' was simply what girls were supposed to be." And thin and blond, too.
Ensler's pursuit of flattening was the genesis for "The Good Body," which opened Monday at Broadway's Booth Theatre. It should have a long life for its author, who also wrote that other piece of feminine stage philosophy, "The Vagina Monologues."
The actress, sporting a Louise Brooks bob and a billowy, sleeveless pants suit, takes the audience on a 90- minute journey through her own and other women's observations about their bodies. The stage setting, designer Robert Brill's mock fashion shoot set up complete with mannequins, suggests glamour. But it's glamour laden with a heavy dose of angst, anger and humor, particularly as Ensler tells it.
She starts with her own story, her desperate attempts at diet ("bread is Satan"), exercise (with the help of a fascistic trainer named Vernon), even praying for a parasite to help her lose weight (she gets her wish). Nothing seems to help.
Self-esteem is a problem, too, and so are her parents. "My father looked like Cary Grant. My mother looked like Doris Day. I was a dead ringer for Anne Frank," she says at one point.
Ensler also portrays a variety of other women, including a few famous ones such as Helen Gurley Brown, the godmother of Cosmopolitan, talking about her many nips and tucks, and lsabella Rossellini, after being fired as a cosmetics spokeswoman for being too old.
More interesting are her portraits of little known women struggling to deal with body issues. There's the teenager looking for Cheetos at the fat camp and angry at ail the skinny girls; the Puerto Rican woman worrying about "the spread" - that rapid expansion of thighs; the fashion model who has had everything worked on; the proud, pierced lesbian.
Ensler also travels overseas to get a foreign perspective, and it's here where she gains insight, an understanding of how women in other lands deal with their bodies. There's the wise Masai woman in Africa, bewildered at Ensler's complaints, and the practical Indian who advises that there is "no joy in perfection. ... If you are perfect, you might as well be dead."
Ensler may not be the most nuanced of actresses, but she has an appealing stage persona that lets her get away with only sketchy approximations of these commonsensical women.
"My body will be mine when I am thin," Ensler says at the beginning of the evening. Fortunately, she doesn't quite get down to that desired size. But then if she had, "The Good Body" might never have happened.
There were approximately 20 women to every man at the performance I attended of Eve Ensler's "The Good Body," which opened last night at the Booth Theatre. And while that degree of gender separation might be acceptable in a harem, it's unusual in a theater.
I'd been respectful of Ensler's earlier runaway hit, "The Vagina Monologues," though I found its bathroom graffiti-like tone sometimes simplistic and shockingly childish. Still, its cheery sexual politics seemed to be an open attempt at female empowerment.
None of it, however, seemed intended for men.
In "The Good Body," Ensler moves up from the vagina to the belly button. She tackles the thorny problems of the weight-challenged, and the unhappy fact that very few women - or men, for that matter - have a body that conforms to the hotly marketed ideal.
That divergence is fascinating. Although I neither polled nor goosed them, most of Ensler's audience seemed beyond the easy reach of repair by diet, gym, surgeon or a prayer.
Although the body beautiful is more of a woman's subject than a man's - a shrill, female whoop of joyful recognition went up about 10 minutes into the show, when Ensler pulled up her jumper to reveal a pleasantly ample stomach - it has wonderful sociological implications.
Why are we supposed to admire skinny women and tall, ab-rippling men? Perhaps genetically, the latter might make for better hunters (not that we hunt much for food nowadays), but skinny women hardly suggest the earth-mother type required for successful family trees.
In "The Good Body," Ensler has grabbed a subject of equal interest to men and women.
In a series of beautifully observed sketched vignettes (a few involving affectionate caricatures of real people, such as Helen Gurley Brown and Isabella Rossellini), she runs with it in a most engaging way - funny, shrewd and, best of all, humane.
Just as her final, unsurprising message earlier was, "Love your vagina - and weep if you haven't got one," here it is the far more cross-gendered, "Love your body - until, regrettably, they come to take it away."
Ensler, who resembles a zaftig Louise Brooks, is a beautifully contained and stylish actress. As a writer, she has a gift for phrasemaking - "chubby-dunking" as a weight-challenged alternative to skinny-dipping - and a playwright's skill for evoking character.
For all its emphasis on weight, the evening is essentially slight. However, those men terrified by the V-word can at least relax.
For a feminist icon, Eve Ensler is appealingly ordinary. This may even be the secret of her success. A more aggressive or imposing figure might not have been able to coax women by the dozens, from cultures across the globe, to speak frankly, affectionately, even lustily about their sexual experiences.
O.K., I'm hedging: about their genitalia.
All right, I'll remove the fig leaf: about their vaginas.
There, I've said it, and I'm proud. I hope Ms. Ensler is, too.
Those conversations formed the basis of the extraordinarily successful ''Vagina Monologues,'' in which Ms. Ensler exposed the connections between taboos about the discussion of female sexuality and women's oppression, both emotional and physical. Since its debut in 1996, ''The Vagina Monologues'' has been performed countless times, in dozens of countries and in more than 35 languages, eventually threatening to rival Starbucks as a global brand.
Ms. Ensler has now moved on -- to her belly button. As she relates in ''The Good Body,'' which opened on Broadway last night at the Booth Theater: ''I said the word vagina vagina vagina a million times. I thought I was home free. I had finally come to like my vagina. Until one day I realized the self-hatred had just crept up into my stomach.''
Like ''The Vagina Monologues,'' ''The Good Body'' aims to uplift and to empower as it entertains. Ms. Ensler wants to soften the ever-fraught relationship between American women and their bodies, to expose the destructive formulas that lead them to assuage their insecurities by punishing their flesh. Reaching for a breadstick, she commendably argues, should trigger neither a crisis of conscience nor a spasm of shame.
Ms. Ensler speaks to her mostly female audience not as a victor over negative thought patterns, but as a fellow victim of a culture saturated in imagery promoting trim thighs and a flat abdomen as universal ideals. Despite her bona fides as a leading proponent of a new-wave of feminism, Ms. Ensler found herself in a post-40 funk, engaged in an entrenched battle with her stomach. ''It has become my tormentor, my most serious committed relationship,'' she says. ''It has protruded through my clothes, my confidence and my ability to work.''
Out came the tape recorder as Ms. Ensler sought once again to explore the root causes of her discomfort and possible cures for it by soliciting the experiences of women caught up in similar battles of the bulge. Along with her reflections on her own uncertain journey toward finding the beauty in imperfection, she offers the perspectives of these women she turned to for enlightenment.
These include the famous and the obscure, from Helen Gurley Brown and Isabella Rossellini to an African-American girl at a camp for overweight teenagers, who describes the little humiliations that hit the hardest: ''Like when I'm shopping in regular stores, they always keep the plus sizes in the back, like porn.'' A Puerto Rican woman Ms. Ensler met at a Weight Watchers meeting talks in horror-movie tones of ''the spread,'' the dangerously ample thighs that are anathema in a culture that prefers women to carry their amplitude only where J. Lo does.
''The Good Body'' is more forthrightly funny than the often somber ''Vagina Monologues.'' When she is not delivering monologues in the voices of her interview subjects (as an actress, Ms. Ensler is, in truth, barely adequate to the task of differentiating these voices), she is relating her conflicted feelings about her appearance in segments bristling with wisecracks about watching Ab Roller infomercials while eating peanut M&M's, or praying for a parasite. She often sounds like an old-school female standup comic, a Joan Rivers or a Phyllis Diller, turning savage self-deprecation into entertainment. (''When my partner rubs my stomach I want to vomit.'')
But the stylish production, directed by Peter Askin, can't obscure the fact that Ms. Ensler's new material is less compelling the ''Vagina'' testimonials. The show is rich in pointed, amusing details, but truly fresh insights are in short supply.
This isn't entirely surprising. Self-help books and cultural manifestos have been decrying the country's emphasis on irrationally idealized body images and its pernicious influence on feminine self-esteem for decades. So have women's magazines. Where ''Vagina Monologues'' broke new ground, ''The Good Body'' sticks to well-trodden pathways.
The proliferation of television shows depicting desperate self-improvement stunts (''The Swan,'' etc.) may attest to the continuing relevance of the issues Ms. Ensler raises, but it is disappointing that she fails to explore areas that might add new dimensions to the discussion. And perhaps she is a little guilty, as are those innumerable books and magazines, of helping to hype a pathology even as she offers her own form of therapy.
For she does at last arrive at an affirmative conclusion, by looking to other cultures for models of a healthy rapport between the female body and mind. And yet I suspect that the insights gleaned from the 74-year-old Masai woman (''You've got to love your body, Eve'') and a friendly Indian woman on a treadmill (''There is no joy in perfection'') could have been collected closer to home. Like too much in ''The Good Body,'' these exotically harvested snippets of wisdom have an off-the-rack flavor. After the searing, revelatory ''Vagina Monologues,'' it's sad to report that Ms. Ensler's analysis of the complicated relationship between self-esteem and cellulite is itself little more than skin-deep.
Say what one will about Eve Ensler – and we’re afraid we have – the woman is a phenomenon.
Yes, her most significant messages in "The Vagina Monologues" were recycled in 1996 from the early '70s feminist health handbook, "Our Bodies, Ourselves." Sure, most American women of a certain age had been thinking about - talking about, giggling about, obsessing about - the alleged mysteries of their biology since the first sigh of the sexual revolution.
Indeed, when Ensler's good- humored and preachy series of monologues were embraced as liberating on college campuses and at big-star fund-raisers, we admit we were shocked - and even a little depressed - by the endurance of hangups that could create a theater smash from such old news.
But a smash it was, which isn't a bad thing. Even better, for the past eight years, Ensler has been using the piece as a catalyst for V-Day, a genuinely global, moneymaking crusade to end violence against women.
So here she is again, this time on Broadway, to tell women they should stop hating their bodies.
Scoff if you must - and we're a little afraid we must - about anyone finding anything new to say about the negativity of negative body image.
In "The Good Body," the good-humored and preachy monologues that opened last night at the Booth Theatre, Ensler takes on Botox, liposuction, dieting and surgery that mutilates feet to fit in those grotesque pointy shoes. "Bread is Satan," she exclaims to a knowing audience. Also, "all women hate a particular part of their body." She hates her stomach, a fleshy little mound that she happily exposes for analysis.
As a child, Ensler's goal was to be "good." Later, she realized she meant "skinny good." We are tempted to remind the world that her observations are as ancient as last month's fashion magazines. We should even classify her concerns as trivial compared with the national and international horror show of our lives. On the other hand, we can't turn on TV without seeing a middle-aged former ingenue deformed by puffy lips or watching some desperate working woman undergo full-body makeovers on so-called reality TV.
Ensler used to just sit on a stool and channel characters. For this 85-minute, $80 evening, she goes for production values. She still has her shiny Louise Brooks hair, but Peter Askin has directed her through a series of attractive scenes on Robert Brill's high-fashion satirical set, punctuated with amusing and horrifying video by Wendall K. Harrington.
She re-creates Cosmo's Helen Gurley Brown, who apparently made all womanhood feel inadequate because her mother didn't think she was pretty. There is the Puerto Rican woman, terrified by her expanding butt. A Jewish woman in California has her vagina surgically tightened as a wistful gift to her husband. There are perhaps two too many stories of childhood sexual abuse, three too many scenes puffing on a treadmill, way too much blaming of parents. She doesn't get overly uplifting until the end, however, and her fantasy of a botulism-frozen smiling army of furious women is not merely a hoot. It just could be an inspiration.
Years from now, sociologists may view Eve Ensler as the visionary who found a link between progressive feminism and pathological narcissism.
Ensler, who gave new meaning to the concept of over-sharing with The Vagina Monologues, has set her sights above the waist, a bit. In her one-woman show, The Good Body (* ½), which opened Monday at Broadway's Booth Theatre, she examines the oppressive desire for physical perfection burdening many of her sisters.
For the playwright/performer, that obsession manifests itself in her stomach. "I've tried to sedate it, educate it, embrace it and, most of all, erase it, Ensler says. If it's traumatic for Ensler to stare at her belly, contemplating her navel seems to come quite easily. Body, in which she plays characters from Isabella Rossellini to an African activist, tells us that we gals shouldn't be obsessed with our figures. But to reach this epiphany, Ensler must witness Third World despair and be consoled by those who suffer more than she ever will.
Like many women who lament the cruel standards of beauty imposed on them, Ensler finds a certain comfort in the less-than-idyllic lives of those who meet such standards. One sequence focuses on a supermodel who endures a series of invasive and dangerous surgical procedures, then marries the tyrannical doctor who supervised them. Ensler's “partner,” in contrast, tells her that he loves her just as she is - though not without some prodding, I suspect.
In fact, the thin, conventionally pretty women we meet in Body are somehow punished for, or in spite of, their looks. Others are presented as plump and content. Good for them, I say. But if the rejection of vanity really guaranteed inner peace, why would so many females gobble up glossy magazines like Cosmopolitan – among them, I'm sure, some audience members who clucked approvingly at Ensler's catty parody of that publication's founder, Helen Gurley Brown?
The Good Body doesn't concern itself with such questions. Ensler seeks to assuage her insecurity and ours with warm, occasionally witty bursts of positive reinforcement. But coddling cannot be confused with empowerment. When Ensler seeks to demonstrate how Afghan women find liberation from war and the Taliban in contraband vanilla ice cream, the limits of her recipe for self-actualization become clear.
"Maybe being good isn't about getting rid of anything," Ensler realizes. I'll remember that bit of hard-earned wisdom the next time I don't feel like going to the gym.