Donna Hanover Goes Center Stage

Donna Hanover doesn’t have Nancy Reagan eyes, but she kept the wedding ring on. And kept quiet. At least until last week.

On a weekend when the other woman in his life, Hillary Clinton, was busy with First Lady duties and giving him no trouble, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was skulking around the basement of City Hall in his baseball cap, trying to avoid reporters who wanted to get him to say the word “vagina” and talk about Ms. Hanover’s upcoming star turn in a piece of genital art. And even in the safe surroundings of the New York International Auto Show, he had to put up with reporters’ questions about his marriage and his wife’s May 30 debut in The Vagina Monologues .

Where is the rule for this moment In the Rudy Giuliani playbook? That manly creed that sets forth the axioms of New York’s macho mayor: Never apologize. Never explain. Take no half-measures: Shut it all down at precisely 4 o’clock (like the Million Youth March), or close it up forever (like the sex shops) or threaten to yank all public funding (like the Brooklyn Museum). Take lots of prisoners, 50 innocent ones a day according to one count. (“I’m not going to be bullied by community activists who say we want feel-good cops,” Police Commissioner Howard Safir has bragged to The New York Times .) Respond with snappish bellicosity (i.e., shut a mother up by reminding her that her dead adult son was a juvenile delinquent).

And No Girlie Stuff. As recently as a few weeks ago he was still avoiding estrogen like it was kryptonite. He blew off a lunch for 400 upstate Republican women billed as “Lunch with Rudy” to make the Yankees’ home opener.

Now he’s trapped in a perfumed nightmare, his own wife soon performing orgasmic moans off-Broadway and his rival for the U.S. Senate making tsk-tsk noises at him every time he turns around.

Maybe it’s a vast left-wing conspiracy. Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues , was an honorary member of the exploratory committee for H.R.C.’s Senate run against Mayor Giuliani. She once staged another play, Necessary Targets, in honor of Mrs. Clinton. She signed a PEN petition deploring the Mayor’s attempt to suspend funding from the Brooklyn Museum. And the production actively courted Donna Hanover–not the other way around.

During some performances of the Monologues , Ms. Ensler has incorporated an unscripted line, “I’m so glad that c–- is running for Senate,” eliciting cheers from the largely female audience. Since the show re-opened in New York at the Westside Theatre in October, there have been numerous unscripted references to the Mayor’s likely disapproval of the anatomically explicit show.

Then again, maybe Ms. Hanover and those theater folk are doing Mr. Giuliani a political favor. An hour-and-40-minute excursion through the feminine love tunnel could be just what the Mayor needs to become more electable after a publicly womanless year. He’s tipped so far into the realm of maleness that he seems insane. The smug prissy righteousness of Mrs. Clinton, of age (like his wife) with the original group of vagina-expeditioners commemorated in the Monologues , is driving him nuts. Isolated in his andro community, he’s desperately deploying Freud as a weapon against his political rival the way he might have in the kitchen of Gracie Mansion were Donna still around to argue with him. (“There’s a process called projection in psychology,” Mr. Giuliani said at a City Hall news briefing about his reaction to the Patrick Dorismond shooting. “It means accusing someone of what you’re doing. That is precisely what Mrs. Clinton is doing.”)

But The Vagina Monologues could be just what the political handlers ordered.

Maybe Donna Hanover–spitefully or affectionately or both–has handed her husband a chance to publicly reconnect, ever-so-fleetingly, with the feminine, a part of himself with which he is woefully out of touch (the exception being the occasional turn in a dress–but J. Edgar Hoover couldn’t stay out of them either, and it didn’t do much to temper his macho misadventures).

If so, he has a month to get ready.

When Donna Hanover makes her debut alongside Kirstie Alley and Hazelle Goodman in The Vagina Monologues , all the world may be able to hear her rhythmically repeating the C-word on stage in order to “reclaim” it. Or she might be emitting a series of loud orgasmic moans including but not limited to “the mountain top moan” (a yodeling sound), “the doggy moan” (a panting sound), “the Grace Slick moan” (a rock-singing sound), “the twisted toe orgasm moan” and culminating in “the surprise triple orgasm moan.” That’s about as racy as it will get–far, far below what used to be available in Times Square before the Giuliani ordinance that banned buttocks, nipples and male organs in a turgid state, but possibly beyond the level of tolerance conservative Republicans are accustomed to exercising in response to genital art.

Also beyond the tolerance of men raised in Italian working-class neighborhoods in the 1950’s. And it’s a sure bet they don’t utter those words in the classrooms or even the halls of Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School.

If Mr. Giuliani had a few female counselors around, they could sneak into The Vagina Monologues and tell him how to react. He told Shere Hite for her new book on sex and business that a full third of his inner circle of advisers are women. It’s time for them to be seen.

Howard Safir or Bruce Teitelbaum can’t help. Rudy can’t send them into the Westside Theatre, stage-dressed as it is in womblike backlit red, with THAT WORD up on the marquee. Uh-uh.

So the Mayor is trapped inside his G.M.C. Suburban with his cigars and his own machismo and inside City Hall with the voices of the men he’s surrounded himself with. Trying to avoid the V-word.

And that’s where he was on April 21, when reporters confronted him in the basement of City Hall. If Donna had warned him about her new role, he certainly didn’t have his own lines ready. “Have a Happy Easter. Have a really Happy Easter,” he spat at one scribe who tossed the question at him before he ducked into a private room. But when he was finally cornered into talking at the International Auto Show on Saturday, the Mayor had come up with just the right word, a very H.R.C. word: “independent.” As in Independent Woman. As in, he’s no control freak when it comes to his woman. Yes!

Was he planning to see the play? “I think those discussions will be private discussions about whether I do or I don’t,” he replied. “My wife is independent and she leads an independent life, so do I. I keep the rest of that private.”

On Easter night I went to the play to see just what Donna Hanover was getting into. The audience is mostly female and almost all Caucasian. The stage is dressed in red gauze. Three red-cushioned barstools are set up before three microphone sticks. As the lights dim, an invisible baritone admonishes us to turn off our phones and anything that beeps or vibrates (tee-hees rustle through the crowd at that one). “Welcome,” he says, as darkly as the emcee for a retrospective of Dracula movies, “to The Vagina Monologues .”

I repressed an instinctive twitch of discomfort. It’s true, I don’t much like that word either. That’s the point. But I am politically inclined to favor equality of grossness for female artists. And this much I can report: Besides the offending word being repeated until the audience has been fully gyn-oculated, nothing in this show is more risqué than Meg Ryan doing her orgasmic riff at Katz’s Deli for Billy Crystal.

This show is to genital art what Mary Poppins is to Hollywood movies. It is hardly the orgiastic rite of debauchery social conservatives (the group CHANGE-NY has sought to have it banned from public colleges) have contended. You don’t see anything but the bare feet of the black-clad actresses. It’s not even intellectual porn. The talk is mostly earnest. I’m not one to underestimate the ease with which men can be aroused, but you’d have to be a really lonely old goat to get a riff of titillation from these clinical, funny, angry rants.

Given what’s available among the dozen or so monologues in the play, Ms. Hanover will probably be channeling a Queens senior citizen talking about how a humiliating first sexual experience shut her down for life. She will probably also channel a middle-aged WASP at a get-to-know-your-vagina seminar discovering her clitoris with a group of other self-explorers sprawled on mats with hand mirrors. “I lay there with my mirror looking for my spot, reaching with my fingers, and all I could think about was the time when I was 10 and lost my gold ring with the emeralds in a lake.”

Ms. Hanover also might have to play a prostitute who talks about servicing lesbians which begins “I love vaginas. I love women. I do not see them as separate things.”

The Mayor’s wife is probably a little too white be asked to do the passionate “My Angry Vagina ” rant about unpleasant invasions. I also doubt she will read the monologue that Claire Danes delivered, about a guy named Bob who so loved staring at vaginas that he made her fall in love with her own previously despised genitals.

But what if she does? Will she make us think of Rudy and wonder whither his head has been?

After the first few hundred repetitions of the V-word, the Mayor would no longer find the word repugnant. He might even appreciate the show’s occasional Disneyesque sappiness. Playwright Ensler went around asking women what their vaginas would say and wear. A 6-year-old girl supposedly told Ms. Ensler she’d dress her vagina in red high tops and a backward Mets cap and that it would say things like turtle and violin. Too cute! There’s a Broadway musical in here.

We left the Westside Theatre a little more comfortable with “vaginas,” a little more aware of our common vagina-ness.

Then we talked about the Mayor.

If it is indeed a political plot, who hatched it? Ms. Ensler has publicly expressed her loathing of the Mayor. Donna Hanover has not expressed her loathing, but has done little to quell the suspicion of it.

Ms. Ensler’s spokesman Gary Sunshine said Ms. Ensler is abroad, tripping innocently and obliviously through Russian and Pakistani villages inaccessible to global telecommunications, gathering material for her next work on the ways women participate in their own culture’s discrimination against them.

Ms. Hanover, however, was reportedly offered the role by the play’s director, Joe Mantello, not Ms. Ensler. In her only statement so far, Hanover talked about how “beautifully written” the play is and how proud she is to be stepping into the footsteps of “magnificent” actresses, including Gina Gershon and Annie Potts.

Sally Fisher, one of the associate producers in charge of the “V-Day Worldwide Initiative” (the play is produced in cities around the world), said Ms. Hanover secured the role because she is an actress–not because she is New York’s First Lady. “It’s a great thing to do. Everybody wants to do it, actresses in New York have called to do it, and of course she would want to do it.”

But Ms. Fisher conceded the coup aspect of the casting. “I am a political person and my thought is it would be really wonderful for the Mayor to see this play,” she said. “It might open up his point of view about women and violence and what art is and what it does and the incredible function of art. The play’s critics are all people who have not seen it. To see the show is transformational in terms of what it’s about. A right-wing segment rushes to judgment about anything that sounds like it doesn’t fit into certain parameters. But this is not a bra-burning feminist statement, it’s a statement of fact about what happens to women. And it’s interesting to me that the word ‘penis’ was on the front page of every paper in the country last year, this girl sucking the President’s penis! A vagina is a medical and physical equal to a penis. That in itself is discriminatory.”

But when Ms. Fisher referred me to producer David Stone on the question of how Donna Hanover won the part, the reaction was much less celebratory. Mr. Stone was surprised that Ms. Fisher had spoken to me at all. “I don’t think she should be speaking on this and she should know better,” Mr. Stone snapped. He then referred me to his own publicist.

“None of the women who have been in the show or are about to do the show have had to audition,” said publicist Bob Fennell. How do they get the parts? “It happens one of two ways: Either they have a personal connection with Stone, Mantello or Eve Ensler, or it’s initiated by David Stone who goes through the same agents channels as you would for any actress or performer.” Mr. Fennel did not deny published reports that Ms. Hanover got her part through a friendship with director Mantello. “They are acquainted,” he said. Mr. Fennell also said the production sought out Ms. Hanover, not the other way around.

In casting Donna Hanover, the director also–deliberately or not–cast Mayor Giuliani in a new role. And it’s not one he’s ever rehearsed.

Hillary Clinton is pushing him further into his radical ideological virility, an ideology welcomed in the U.S. Congress but not so favored by New Yorkers. Seeing his wife perform in The Vagina Monologues with kooky Kirstie could be Rudy’s last chance to pass through the secret world of women, some of whose votes he must win in order to arrive at the Testosterone Nirvana of Trent Lott’s Senate.