"It's all about the story," one character in Necessary Targets utters at one point. That line proves strangely prophetic in Eve Ensler's new play at the Variety Arts Theatre. Necessary Targets has a story, but it's one you'll feel like you've already seen countless times before.
At most, the play isn't much more than a watery clash of cultural ideas: East meets west and eastern west meets western west, how people deal with others both inside of and outside of their own social group, that sort of thing. Ensler sure jumps through a lot of hoops - most of them strangely safe - to get there.
And she wastes no time doing it. From the first moments of the play when J.S. (Shirley Knight) and Melissa (Catherine Kellner) arrive at a Bosnian refugee camp to counsel the women there, Ensler sets up J.S. as being preoccupied with comfort (to the point of carrying six bottles of Evian in one of her traveling bags) and Melissa as being terrorized by it.
It's this relationship that provides the primary conflict in the play. J.S. wants traditional American group therapy (complete with name tags), Melissa wants in your face confrontation with as much emotion and crying as possible. Of course, Melissa has an ulterior motive, the book she's writing, in which the women of Bosnia will be just another chapter.
It's difficult, at the beginning, to completely sympathize with either woman, and there's little surprise in what direction J.S. and Melissa will eventually head. Melissa has no room to grow, so she doesn't, J.S. has more room to expand, and so she does. But there's something too pat, too predictable about the roads the characters take and the way they're presented (Melissa criticizes J.S. openly about her tactics, ignoring her own problematic ones). What seems like an adventurous premise ends up so whitewashed, there's little to do but to wait for J.S.'s inevitable dramatic emotional catharsis.
To pad the evening, Ensler adds a third main character, the doctor Zlata (played by Diane Venora), who thoughtfully articulates for the audience everything J.S. and Melissa do wrong. She knows what her women need far better than the Americans do, and she makes sure to tell them at every opportunity. But Ensler has made Zlata so transparent, so ordinary, her criticisms feel as repetitive as the exchanges between J.S. and Melissa.
Finally, there are the other Bosnian women, and Ensler is hardly afraid of catering to the commonplace with them as well. There's the beautiful Jelena (Alyssa Bresnahan) has an abusive husband, the troubled young mother Seada (Mirjana Jokovic) has a secret, the elderly and wise-cracking Azra (Sally Parrish) cares more about her cows than other people, and the young but hardened Nuna (Maria Thayer) has her own pain to deal with.
Though there's little in Necessary Targets to suggest the play ever would have been truly compelling, it certainly didn't have to be as simplistic as it ends up. The womens' troubles are solved too quickly, the relationships between them formed and mended because Ensler wants them to be, and not because the characters find they have to be. When the women walk around sipping coffee, giving each other facials, and calling cows from a great hole in the ground, the road to powerful drama is hardly being trod upon.
Still, the play is not completely without merit: Knight understated performance is charming and funny, though her role is painfully underwritten. Michael Wilson provides solid direction that easily lives up to the material, Howell Binkley's lighting is good, and Jeff Cowie's set is a knockout: a Bosnian refugee camp has never looked so good.
Near the end of the play, in the final culmination of all she has learned, J.S. says two things that resonate all too powerfully. First, most of her patients back in the United States stay the same despite her work with them. The audience of this play may well feel that, and when, not too long after, J.S. laments that she has no direction or purpose, it seems that the description could just as easily apply to Necessary Targets itself.