Monday, May 31, 2004

Heaven preserve us from plays where well-heeled American women find themselves amid the suffering of war survivors in far-off lands.

There is something gallingly offensive about plays like Eve Ensler’s ego-driven “Necessary Targets,” where the predominant message is not that the Bosnian war and the violence toward women was monstrous, but that two gals from the U.S.A. were able to make torture and atrocity all about them a vehicle for self-growth. What next, some bonehead getting up on stage and proclaiming, “I visited a concentration camp and never felt more alive.”

Our culture of me, me, me, it’s all about me — when will it end? One can only hope that works riddled with psychobabble and movie-of-the-week sentiment like “Necessary Targets” will hasten the demise of the hold narcissism has on our society. Inadvertently, the play does impart the important message that perhaps some things just shouldn’t be dramatized, that they are sacred in their severity and are perhaps best expressed another way.

You emerge from “Necessary Targets” feeling doubly sorry for the Bosnian women refugees. First, because they endured unfathomable horrors. Second, because they were exploited to create a play that not only trivializes their pain, but uses it as a means of self-actualization. Using other people’s tragedies to “get real” with yourself is an abomination.

That is precisely the premise of “Necessary Targets.” A Park Avenue psychiatrist named J.S. (Julie-Ann Elliott) and Melissa (Jen Plants), a human rights worker, travel to a Bosnian refugee camp, ostensibly to help the women confront their traumas and begin the healing process. J.S., a combination of Dr. Laura and Florence Nightingale, works wonders in a short time — a little impromptu therapy, a little vodka, a little kvetching, and the women are on the road to hunky-dory.

Of course, J.S. realizes that her cushy life back in Manhattan and the rarified neuroses of her patients (she specializes in eating disorders) is all a sham and that real life and authentic people only exist among the women of Bosnia. You don’t quite know what the future holds for J.S. after her experience, other than that it involves packing boxes, a more folkloric wardrobe, and jabbering into a tape recorder.

Melissa, too, is greatly changed by her encounter with the women of Bosnia. An intense young woman who is all work, no play, Melissa begins to confront why she has become an atrocity junkie.

What about the women of Bosnia? Except for some quick-fix therapy, they seem pretty much the same as they were before the Americans arrived. They still need basic necessities, a country, a voice. Are their lives better because J.S. and Melissa dropped by for a rap session?

“Necessary Targets” suffers mightily from self-indulgence, which crops up in the play’s penchant for shrink-speak about feelings, nurturing and denial. Who talks like that outside the self-help community? There is also a tendency for something to be shown, after which its importance is discussed time and time again. Let the audience think for themselves.

Olney’s production, under the ploddingly well-meaning direction of Cornelia Pleasants, is not a total loss. Miss Pleasants has assembled an excellent cast, including Halo Wines as a flinty elderly refugee who prefers cows and goats to people. Miss Wines conveys more in stillness and in canny observation than most actors can in a dramatic monologue. Helen Hedman also shines as a painfully self-contained former doctor, as does Rana Kay and Scarlett Black as two of the camp’s youngest members.

Miss Ensler, the author of “The Vagina Monologues,” can be a successful provocateur using wit, anger, and intelligence to potent effect. However, “Necessary Targets” misses its mark, except as an example of “deja moo” — the feeling you’ve heard all this bull— before.

WHAT: “Necessary Targets” by Eve Ensler

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through June 27.

TICKETS: $15 to $36

PHONE: 301/924-3400


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