The Vagina comes again

Somewhere, deep inside, my vagina has a really, really smart brain.” Eve Ensler’s play (it’s actually a staged reading) “The Vagina Monologues” may be the first of its kind to actually encourage keeping one’s mind in their pants. It’s a call to women everywhere to embrace their true center, which happens to be about two feet lower than we thought it was.

Seven years after it first premiered off-Broadway, Ensler’s show is now showing signs of age. What was once a seemingly incendiary night of theater has diminished into warmed-over dramatics that’s embers have a faint distinction of the glow that used to be a bonfire.

Even the catch line in advertisements for the show, “Spread the Word,” now suggests something along the lines of a nationwide group-hug, rather than a spliced double entendre. And the show’s title, which Ensler sings from the rooftops to lessen the shock associated with public references to genitalia, has ingrained itself into the American theatrical idiom.

This has not served the play’s impact particularly well, however. Saying it over and over again makes the word vagina less sensitive. True, some theatergoers may enter Ensler’s drama benighted, but many of them will leave benign, which is hardly the effect she’s going for.

What doesn’t help is the fact that the trio of actresses on tour, now showing at the National Theater, is a mixed bag. Taking center stage, Frederique (LAST NAME?) looks wonderful. With her thick golden hair rolled up and back, she resembles a smoldering, gilded Lily Munster. Unfortunately, she speaks in awkward, almost melodic rhythms that have a soporific effect when they should have audiences wide-eyed. Her turning point happens during the last 15 minutes of the production, but it’s thrilling all the same. The (now famous) laundry list of orgasm noises made by a cross-section of women induces the kind of laughter that pairs the rolling back of necks and slapping of knees. Her impression of a triple-orgasm is especially resounding.

Both Starla Benford and Amy J. Carle catch moments of blissful exuberance, treating the material like a wardrobe of haute couture originals: they wear it well, for the most part. Benford does a swell turn as a young girl who becomes sexually jaded as she progressively ages. And Carle heightens the show during a piece about an elderly Jewish woman’s sexual (and emotional) “flood.”

Still, it’s a damagingly under-rehearsed show, practically screaming for the director, Joe Mantello, to take a plane from New York for a tweaking session.

We are indebted to Ensler for opening the door (so to speak) to the center of womanhood. But after seven years, there’s no longer a surprise. And those moans have turned into reflective sighs and groans.

“The Vagina Monologues” is playinag at The National Theater, located at 1321 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, through April 27.

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