Written by Eve Ensler
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Through October 22 at The Culture Project
45 Bleecker St.
In “The Treatment,” Eve Ensler’s unfocused play about the Iraq war, the romance between Dylan McDermott and Portia hijacks the show.
Eve Ensler’s ‘Treatment’ needs serious help
By Scott Harrah
Since Eve Ensler’s Obie-winning “Vagina Monologues,” premiered ten years ago in the basement of the Cornelia Street Café, 76 countries have staged performances of it, HBO produced a special about it, and one day out of every year, “V-Day,” now honors the play’s underlying theme of preventing violence against women. After a play that had such a powerful influence on popular culture and the women’s movement worldwide, Ensler’s fans will be disappointed that her new, politically charged one-act, “The Treatment,” is impotent by comparison.
The play focuses on a mentally disturbed soldier (Dylan McDermott, Ensler’s real-life stepson) who has just returned from a war that is never mentioned by name, though it’s implicit he is back from Iraq. The intense narrative shows much of Ensler’s anger about the controversial war, but the audience is often left wondering just what she’s so worked up about. The problem is that Ensler’s dialogue is at times vague and cryptic, as if she’s afraid of being too specific about why she disagrees with the Iraq war. The female lead, played by the actress Portia, tells the soldier that she’s a woman who grew up in the military and once believed “in rules, in codes,” but someone “undid the moorings.” Huh?
At another point, Portia says that the current war is unlike any she’s ever witnessed because in previous conflicts there were “landmarks.” Aren’t there landmarks in Baghdad? Such awkward dialogue gets absurd after awhile, damaging the intensity and plausibility of what could have been a thoughtful story with much to say about the war.One wonders if Ensler feared protests from Republicans and toned down the story with nebulous words and references so she wouldn’t offend anyone. The characters never say the word Iraq, and it’s hard to understand why Ensler considers the name of the country something unmentionable. With all the controversies surrounding President Bush and the Iraq war, having dissenting views about our “democracy-building” mission is quite common and hardly something one needs to hide, especially in a drama about the conflict.
It’s indeed a shame that Ensler doesn’t clarify her message more, because “The Treatment” contains two of the best Off-Broadway performances this season. Portia is a tough-as-nails African-American military psychiatrist, and she plays her with amazing aplomb. McDermott is equally powerful as a sergeant suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who cannot sleep after witnessing too many war atrocities. But Portia’s interest in the war crimes at Abu Ghraib and the unethical interrogations of Arabs are overshadowed by the hokey sexual chemistry that McDermott instigates. In one scene, Portia asks her patient about his war experiences, but he is too busy leering at her. When she asks him what he’s doing, he says, “Looking at you, Major. Picturing what it’s like underneath your uniform.” He then makes a sordid comment about her undergarments. At first, Portia keeps her clothes on, but eventually gives in to her patient’s advances.
The romance that follows is nothing but predictable melodrama: He asks her if she’s attracted him. She says yes. When asked why, she tells him, “Great hair.” He says, “No, really.” She responds, “Because you’re possessed. Because you’re capable of being haunted.” They kiss and he says, “You don’t kiss like a Major.” She answers, “You don’t kiss like a PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] freak.” This inane sexual banter belongs in a daytime soap not a serious play, especially one by Ensler, whose fans expect something more significant and meaningful.
Director Leigh Silverman (who recently directed Lisa Kron’s “Well” on Broadway) does manage to get her actors to do a good job. They scream, emote, and cry in all the right places, but the material they have to work with is too undeveloped to be convincing. It’s a shame, because Ensler is indeed a talented writer and a political visionary. Hopefully her next play will be a better reflection of her talents.