What's got her hopping mad throughout this electricity-charged play is the war in Iraq. More specifically, she's livid about the horrifying Abu Ghraib shenanigans that have had devastating effects on both the victimized and the victimizers. She's equally put out by the behavior of persons only tangentially involved in the searing incident, and is more palpably incensed by those in authority who've shielded themselves in upper-echelon Teflon. So Ensler has decided to take her extravagant resentments out on the responsible parties by composing a chilling anti-war-tactics allegory.
In her oblique approach, she confines an unnamed soldier suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (Dylan McDermott) in an aquarium-green consultation room with an unnamed military psychiatrist (Portia). The tough woman is ostensibly assigned to deal with the sergeant's case as effectively as she's able -- and in her coolly professional manner, she appears extremely able. The sergeant, who hears unceasing noises in his head and is unable to sit still, initially shows expected resistance. In time, though, the enlisted man slowly begins to succumb to her ministrations -- especially when the skilled doctor begins sedating him with injections. Rendered psychologically impotent, the sergeant reluctantly agrees to discuss that physical condition as well. While normally quick to take the insulting offensive after deciding he's been on the defensive long enough, he nonetheless becomes less guarded at one point. "I'm dead," he wails.
For a large chunk of this 70-minute drama, Ensler has crafted a crackling melodrama about what the characters term "new war, new rules." But the play eventually turns into a runaway train. To use a pair of well-known psychiatric terms, transference and counter-ransference between doctor and patient goes haywire, and medical ethics are breached. In the process, Ensler even gets to put in a renewed plug for the good, responsive body.
Furthermore, the soap-boxing dramatist wants to say things about getting to Abu Ghraib's origins. But in doing so, she's also determined to declare that critics of oppression risk becoming oppressors in their retaliation. She wants so much to get the vexing message across that she tries bending logic to her will -- which is never a winning proposition. And her final image, which won't be revealed here, has the air of the sledgehammer about it.
While audiences may conclude that the lady doth protest too much, actors Dylan McDermott and Portia don't look as if they put up much of a fight about putting up such an onstage fight. Under the direction of Leigh Silverman, the two of them fly at each other like heavyweight boxers who've just heard the bell sound for round one. Portia, known for her work with the LAByrinth Theatre Company, has a way of seeming to fill more of the stage than her form actually does. Her probing psychiatrist -- who is up to more in her 50-minute sessions with the soldier than she lets on -- is a woman of tempered steel. When heated to the right Fahrenheit degree; however, iron becomes pliant and Portia is ready for that transformation.
Still, the acting edge goes to McDermott, who is Ensler's adopted son. And what a role she's written for him; he's asked to change moods more times than a porcupine has quills, McDermott -- best known for his work on the TV series The Practice -- not only rises to this radically different occasion, he rockets. His acting pokes through the seams in early moments, but he ultimately stops piling on the tics and loses himself in the tormented character. If anyone is truly giving the audience the treatment it deserves, it's McDermott.