Having created a full-out exploration of women's relationships to their vaginas in The Vagina Monologues, feminist Eve Ensler has turned her attention to female bodies in general in The Good Body, a compassionate, would-be reassuring look at the near-universal American neurosis on the subject. The show is watchable and empathetic, and way smarter than most girls'-night-out stuff; it actually puts our obsessive physical narcissism into an international context, at least a little. How puny our self-involvement looks, for example, when the protagonist — Ensler herself, the script being autobiographical — is offered a share of an elderly African woman's meager lunch and responds, "Oh, I don't eat bread."
We learn that Ensler/Eve became obsessed with her belly in her forties. She had grown up with a rigidly repressive stepfather who molested her, and she desperately wanted to be good. Somehow that protruding stomach symbolized and advertised her irrepressible badness. As Eve talks about popular culture's emphasis on thinness, Cosmopolitan covers appear on monitors overhead, along with photos of the hideously starved body of Isabelle Caro, the model who died at 28 and became a poster child for anti-anorexia activists. There are also a lot of jokes about M&M's, the satanic power of bread, and Eve's longing for an intestinal parasite.
As she did for The Vagina Monologues, Ensler interviewed several women, and their comments account for some of the best parts of the evening. Helen Gurley Brown herself appears, still exercising obsessively in her eighties, refusing to believe that her husband really finds her attractive, remembering her mother's disparaging comments about her looks and saying ruefully that if she had a daughter she would tell her constantly that she was pretty. Well, in her own way. A teenage girl at a fat camp is torn between self-loathing and celebrating the generosity and fullness of her body; when she and the other campers secretly swam naked, she says, "we looked beautiful." A Puerto Rican woman proudly sashays her big butt, but expresses her terror of its eventual spread. Another interviewee has married her surgeon, Ham, after repeated plastic surgeries, and he periodically finds a new part of her to work on. She muses on how sweet it must feel for him to "actually make love to what he's created," and fears what will happen when he runs out of things to fix. "I am a Ham creation," she pronounces. But — and here Emily Paton Davies, playing the role, emits the most delicious giggle — she does still secretly splurge on ice cream. We meet a lesbian who gets off on doing piercings, and a middle-aged woman who's had her vagina tightened to please her aging husband. Now he's full of vitality again, but making love hurts — and he's still paying no more attention to her sexual needs than he did before.
Eve's partner is a gem, though. He loves bread — without it, "there is no home," he says — and he also loves her body. But she's too freaked by his use of the word "sturdy" to hear him.
Even when she goes overseas, Eve works out. She haunts gyms in Italy and India. But she also notices how differently the women she encounters think about themselves. "Here we live in our bodies," the African woman explains. "They do our work." And in Afghanistan, still under Taliban rule, she is led to a hidden place where women eat vanilla ice cream — a crime for which they could be beaten or even killed.
Wry, wise and appealing, Megan Van De Hey holds the stage effortlessly as Eve, while Lisa Rosenhagen and Paton Davies are sometimes funny, sometimes touching in all the other roles — though some of those could be more deeply inhabited. The actresses have the emotions down, but not always the individual personae; they let the accents do the work of characterization. And, of course, it's very hard for these slender, lithe women to be convincing as a fat teenager (Paton Davies) or a big-bodied Puerto Rican (Rosenhagen). (I also missed the warmth and sensuality I saw in a one-woman version of The Good Body presented by Mare Trevathan a year ago.) Though this production is sometimes funny and always thoroughly enjoyable, the play itself doesn't bring anything particularly revelatory to a topic that's been explored so thoroughly already — but it does serve as a rather touching encomium to the female body.