Vaudeville May Have Died, but the Vagina Never Will

Another openin’, another show. But just when you might be thinking optimistically at the start of a new Broadway season, “They don’t produce terrible shows like Epic Proportions anymore,” why, by golly, they go ahead and do them anyway.

Are they on a suicide mission, or just whistling Dixie? The numbing, neo-vaudevillian awfulness of this rumored comedy about crowd control and the making of an old-time 1930’s Hollywood biblical epic is too bad even for the minor pleasures of camp. Its naturally gifted star, Kristin Chenoweth, who took the Tony for her sparkling cartoon performance in last season’s revival of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown , is trapped in a nightmare. Call it a third-rate touring version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum , without the music.

Call it anything you want–hoary, dated, cheap or simply staggering– Epic Proportions was written by Larry Coen and David Crane in the corny, debased style of a clapped-out burlesque sketch for early TV. The plot is of little consequence. The enchanting pint-size Ms. Chenoweth, with her helium voice and clipboard, is Louise, the assistant director in charge of 3,400 extras (and two toilets–geddit?). The brothers Phil and Benny, dim local farm boys, sign on as extras and compete for the love of Louise while building pyramids and stuff, or camping about the place as slaves who mug along with the rest of the desperate cast.

A while ago I was visiting Las Vegas and saw a show that was a retro-tribute to vaudeville. I vividly remember two old troupers, a husband-and-wife team, both in immaculate white tie and tails. They were fine performers, too, possessing the easeful charm of all artists who understand the secret valor it takes to achieve a kind of nobility with antic material. They came to an ancient routine about golf balls. And in the midst of it, the husband got the biggest laughs of the night. He peered out at us ruefully and said, “Well, folks! Now you know why vaudeville died.”

Someone ought to tell that story to the folks behind Epic Proportions . Who on earth is this 85-minute-long, dispiritingly slapstick show for? Tourists who enjoy a bit of a giggle about Cecil B. De Mille? Jerry Zaks’ Uncle Louis? Mr. Zaks directed Epic Proportions , sort of. It is believed that the Mr. Zaks of Smokey Joe’s Cafe appeals in high-minded disputes such as this to the good sense and populist taste of Uncle Louis in the same way that Terrence Rattigan appealed to his own mythical arbiter, Aunt Edna.

If it’s good enough for them, it ought to be good enough for you. There’s only one catch. It isn’t.

And so to vaginas.

The Vagina Monologues , Eve Ensler’s candid celebration of women’s sexuality and “down there,” is back in New York at the Westside Theater like a vagina revivalist meeting for the faithful. The merchandise stand is unusual for theater lobbies. It sells Vagina Friendly buttons, and I bought one, to show willing, as it were.

My problem going in, I must confess, is that vaginas have always bewildered me. To be honest, I’ve never known where I am with them. I mean, one minute they’re there, the next minute they’re not. I ought to know where they are by now. But there you have it: They’re an everlasting, fabulous mystery.

And I would sooner keep it that way.

But Ms. Ensler, the High Priestess of Vaginas, cynically demystifies everything, like an obstetrician. She has interviewed only women on the hallowed, touchy subject (and 200 women, at that). A few interviews with men might have been enlightening, and given us all a good laugh. Still, there’s laughter enough throughout the monologues, particularly from the women in the audience (who far outnumbered us intrepid men).

But Ms. Ensler’s message is serious, if not earnest, with her New Agey preachiness and belated catalytic empowerment of the clitoris. “I was worried about vaginas,” she begins, as if announcing bad weather, “I was worried about what we think about vaginas, and even more worried that we don’t think about them. I was worried about my own vagina.”

Oh, dear. All that obsessive public worry.

She asks her women Barbara Walters-like questions, such as: “If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?” (Answer: A leather jacket, silk stockings, mink. No one is reported replying: “Don’t be silly.”) Or, “If your vagina could talk, what would it say in two words?” (Slow down. Is that you? Feed me.) But where does that get us?

There are peculiar conscious-raising tales about a poor 72-year-old woman who has never had an orgasm and dreams of Burt Reynolds, of all people; another about self-discovery in a vagina workshop; one about a dirty-minded sex therapist; and a woman who meets a bloke named Bob who likes to look at vaginas all day long (she used to loathe her vagina until Bob). There are graphic monologues about menstruation, genital mutilation, the absurd torture of pelvic exams. “My vagina’s angry. It is. It’s pissed off. My vagina’s furious and it needs to talk …”

Ms. Ensler’s vaginas never stop talking. They complain about smell, periods, abuse, blood. They seem to both lament and celebrate their own post-feminist existence. On the other hand, the quiet monologue about rape in Bosnia is horribly moving, for the raped are as invaded, butchered and burned as any devastated country at war.

Her rude reclaiming of the C-word is Chaucerian (though un-American). Her impressions of different orgasmic moans I found only so-so. But in the end, I ask you: How much do we need to know about vaginas? When Hamlet complained that too much analysis would “pluck out the heart of my mystery,” the lad had a point. In our over-analyzed, unprivate times, we no longer value the unspoken, and silence can be seductively, mysteriously lethal to the romantic, enduring enigma. Ms. Ensler labels everything with a capital V. Her outrage at the abuse of women is sincere and heartfelt. But she protests too much in her missionary zeal–outing vaginas everywhere to politically correct heaven.

Vaudeville May Have Died, but the Vagina Never Will