Catherine Kellner and Shirley Knight in Necessary Targets(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Catherine Kellner and Shirley Knight in Necessary Targets
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
In order to create her startling (and by now phenomenal) play The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler prompted scores of women to tell stories about their most private selves. For her new play, Necessary Targets, she has followed the same process. But instead of focusing on a place Down There, she has set her sights Over There.

Necessary Targets is set in 1995 in a Bosnian refugee camp, where five women are undergoing a 10-day course of trauma therapy. The goal of the facilitators--J.S., a comfortably middle-class Park Avenue analyst (Shirley Knight) and Melissa, a persistent writer with some therapeutic experience (Catherine Kellner)--is to alleviate the women's post traumatic stress by creating an atmosphere in which they can unburden themselves of suppressed memories.

The interlopers' intentions are ostensibly good, and so are Ensler's, as they were in The Vagina Monologues. But that show was built on an inspired premise and a series of graphic and provocative verbal arias. Here, the politically active playwright has lodged her angry reaction to the Bosnian conflict and its effects on women in a sequence of anemic scenes that don't illuminate the atrocities of war so much as cheapen the experience of those who've endured them.

The problem may lie in Ensler's attitudes toward storytelling. It's one thing for women to reveal themselves in documentary fashion, which is the dynamic engine that drives The Vagina Monologues. It's another thing entirely to set up a narrative in which the suspense depends on when and how the participants will finally let go of the secrets they're harboring and which wartime horrors they will describe. Two of the women, in particular, are patently hiding distraught pasts--Seada (Mirjana Jokovic), a twentysomething beauty who clutches a strangely quiet infant to her shoulder, and Zlata (Diane Venora), a short-tempered doctor of a certain age. Incidentally, it's not just the Bosnians who have pasts they're not ready to confide; both American women also have a few things on their minds, as well.

Telling a story of people reluctant to tell stories, Ensler makes it clear--in leaden dramatic terms--that the play is over once the secrets come out. She bides stage time until all of the tales are vouchsafed without providing much in the way of compelling elaboration or clever diversion. Initially, there is spiky uncertainty among the women about how they are to relate to each other. Azra (Sally Parrish) wants nothing more than to return to her village and her livestock. Nuna (Maria Thayer), who wears a Rolling Stones T-shirt, is in general teenage rebellion. Only Jelena (Alyssa Bresnahan) is glad for the therapists' presence. But whatever resistance there is quickly evaporates and, as the vignettes unfold, the action is given over mainly to warm and fuzzy female bonding as they cook and sing and dance and hug. (Perhaps Ensler's subliminal message is that if women conducted wars, they would be more like hootenannies.)

Ensler does draw J.S. and Melissa as characters with more than two dimensions apiece. J.S., a divorcee who claims that she's there simply to answer her country's call, is the kind of woman who packs so meticulously that her socks are wrapped in separate tissue sheets. Presumably, she keeps her bruised feelings wrapped in the same manner. Melissa, boastful about hopping from one global trouble spot to the next while gathering information for an inflammatory book, at first seems completely assured. Eventually, but with little dramaturgical smoothness, both she and J. S. admit to misgivings about themselves and their careers: "Most of my patients stay the same," J. S. says of the psychiatric practice she's temporarily left behind.

Diane Venora, Shirley Knight, Catherine Kellner,Alyssa Bresnahan, and Maria Thayer in Necessary Targets(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Diane Venora, Shirley Knight, Catherine Kellner,
Alyssa Bresnahan, and Maria Thayer in Necessary Targets
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The most interesting aspect of Necessary Targets is Ensler's attitude toward Melissa, who seems genuinely concerned about her charges but whose motives, as she continues to stalk the women with a tape recorder, become suspect; she begins to appear to regard them solely as source material, as her necessary targets. Over the course of the play, the sympathy she prompts for herself shifts to the previously hesitant J.S. As Ensler throws a harsher light on Melissa's book project she curiously seems to criticize such a hard-hearted pursuit of the women's stories. But isn't rounding up information for a project precisely what Ensler has done? From the interviews she held, she's created these composite and unfortunately generic figures. Just as Melissa has done, she's produced a work based on recorded stories. Is Ensler unconsciously chastising herself?

Directed unobtrusively by Michael Wilson, Necessary Objects is played well enough by the seven actresses, considering the fact that Ensler hasn't given them a great deal to work with. Shirley Knight works her brand of natural acting with customary skill; she has also contributed a lullaby, "Rest Awhile," that has the positive effect it should. Diane Venora is strong as the volatile Zlata but does more throwing up of hands than might be wished. Mirjana Jokovic, who has the flashiest breakdown as Seada, gets through it nimbly. Catherine Kellner is sufficiently mercurial as Melissa, although her resemblance to Sarah Jessica Parker in looks and vocal pattern sometimes makes it seem as if the play should be retitled "Carrie Bradshaw, Foreign Correspondent."

Jeff Cowie's set design for a severely damaged meeting hall feels right, as does Howell Binkley's lighting. Susan Hilferty's costumes work beautifully from the start: J. S. says she's brought the wrong clothes, and their urban stylishness makes a nicely understated contrast to the meager wardrobes of the Bosnian women.

Eve Ensler surely views the title of this play as ironic, but maybe not as ironic as it turns out to be. She couldn't have meant to turn the enterprise into what it sadly is: a necessary critical target.