It’s easy to think up metaphors for the current state of Iraq: “Iraq is a mosh pit of factionalism” is one; “Iraq is a cauldron of hatred” is another. “Iraq is a circus” is a third.
Circus, too, is an apt metaphor for what Dylan McDermott is doing in Eve Ensler’s new play The Treatment. Squeeze your eyes for a moment and imagine hearing a resonant baritone booming from the center of the iridescent big top:
“And now, Dylan McDermott, portraying an army major forced to torture imprisoned Iraqis, will sit on a chair and shiver like he’s detoxing!”
“And now, Dylan McDermott, his character having been needle-injected with a calming agent by the military shrink assigned to determine what’s triggering his psychosis, will drool for you!”
“And now, Dylan McDermott, his character drowning in flashbacks about sodomizing high-profile terrorist detainees, will strip off his shirt!”
“And now, Dylan McDermott, his character an overwrought symbol of America’s demoralized military, will strut in his tighty-whities, delivers speeches illuminating his character’s harrowing experiences as a torturer and then he’ll pull down his underpants and slap his own ass!”
Please, don’t shoot the messenger. I agree with the woman who sat behind me who said she was there because McDermott is such a good actor and, I’m sure, because he’s easy on the eyes—it gets easier and easier the less he wears. As an actor, he’s manfully sportsmanlike: ask him to sit and shiver, and he’ll convincingly sit and shiver. Ask him to play scenes in which the subtext is his character undergoing romantic transference with his therapist (played by Portia as a saucy roux of sweet and steely sarcasm), and McDermott will toss himself on top of her, appear to pass out, pose cute in puppy-print pajamas, explode in maudlin fury, collapse in a tumultuous physical heap, have a gut-wrenching teary breakdown—whatever you like. Talk about theater of war!
Yet I have reservations about the play. For one thing, Ensler thinks it clever to avoid too much specificity about her characters or where the play occurs: Richard Hoover’s set is so austere you can picture Samuel Beckett having his appendix removed. Despite the play’s allusions to Iraq, it’s up to you to fill in the blanks—you have to listen as McDermott’s character delivers regurgitated Republican talking points and other kinds of rally-round-the-flag red-meat rhetoric. At bottom, Ensler seems torn between writing a metaphor—The Treatment as a symbol of Abu Ghraib, of the toxic human waste product of war without end—and a case study of a Manchurian Candidate-like soldier gone berserk, a torturer victimized by the barbarous and degraded military he serves.
Despite The Treatment’s 70-minute clip, McDermott’s key speech arrives too late and Ensler’s whack-the-rump stage direction undercuts it. “There is something about being stripped to the raw flesh that makes you a total animal,” he says. “Anything can happen then. The Captain always kept them naked. He said he liked them in their natural element.” And then the stage direction: “He slaps his own naked butt.” Now, he finishes: “He liked them raw and exposed. We all got used to it. Slapping their naked flesh, pushing them around, their scared limp dicks flapping everywhere. There is something so exciting about being dressed when the other ones are naked and cold. Don’t you think? Something about wearing clothes that gives you total control.” What a harrowing truth that is, even if late in the play. What’s frustrating is that’s the moment The Treatment really begins.