STARS TEND TO DISTRACT IN “MONOLOGUES”; THE PRESENCE OF MINOR CELEBRITIES CAN CLOUD THE MESSAGE OF ENSLER’S FRANK AND FUNNY PRODUCTION

Witnessing Susan Anton re-enact a surprise triple-orgasm moan is a surreal theater experience.

She’s one of three actresses who have split duties for Eve Ensler’s award-winning one-woman play, “The Vagina Monologues.” This second San Francisco celebrity engagement follows Ensler’s own appearance last winter.

But while the playwright could dive right into such sexual intimacies, minor stars tend to be a little distracting in themselves, much less so, though, when they’re talking and moaning about genitalia.

With “The Vagina Monologues,” the audience gets about 90 minutes of frank, funny and poignant talk about vaginas. Some might feel as if crossing one’s legs (female or male) may be construed as political commentary. Face it, unless you’re a sex worker or gynecologist, vaginas are a subject you have to ease into.

So it was a pleasant surprise to find such humor, energy and a sense of playfulness amongst the three actresses. Casually barefoot and dressed in black Anton in a sleeveless turtleneck, Christina Pickles in a long-sleeved top, Tracee Ellis Ross in a tank top and all in loose pants the three provided a monochromatic, flesh-tone contrast to the initial pink lighting.

As they read the work from square white pages, the actresses also did more than justice to Ensler’s brightly woven insights into female territory. Fortunately, the reprisal of Ensler’s play is no misbegotten “Vagina Love Letters” although the passionate paean to the female nether regions could almost be a series of correspondence, with the vagina writing back.

The monologues are based on interviews with more than 200 women. Responses to questions like “what would your vagina wear?” (diamonds, velvet, red high-tops) and vagina trivia are interspersed among the monologues, which range from exuberant to brutally disturbing.

My initial tensions (after all, the last time I saw Anton, she was on a ’70s variety show, singing “Disco Inferno”) gave way to a sense of relief, but they slowed my reaction time, making it difficult to truly revel in the intelligent script. A Las Vegas and Radio City Music Hall mainstay, the blonde is best known as Dudley Moore’s former longtime companion.

Pickles, while not a household name or a face you can readily place, is a perennial presence in television and film, including her Emmy-nominated stints in “St. Elsewhere” and “Friends” and roles in “The Wedding Singer” and “Legends of the Fall.” Ross, daughter of music diva Diana Ross, has a smattering of movie credits (“Hanging Up”) and currently stars in the UPN sitcom “Girlfriends.”

The actresses took on readings suited to their stage personas. Ross claimed self-discovery: a girl’s emerging lesbianism, a self vagina-hating woman’s encounter with a vagina connoisseur and a rousing performance of vagina rage. With her genteel, nuanced narration, Pickles explored a 72-year-old “cellar,” a visit to a vagina workshop and Ensler’s wondrous witness to her granddaughter’s birth.

Anton, who began a tad over-exuberantly, acquitted herself with the tragically poetic retelling of a Bosnian woman brutalized during the war. She also showed her vocal range as the former tax attorney-turned-sex worker whose mission was to make women moan hence the earlier mentioned theatrical highlight.

Once you get past the celebrity personas, the vagina emerges as an all-consuming, perplexing, playful cosmos. Even the gentlemen in the audience reveled in this place, although talk of positive males doesn’t figure much in this show. Then again, that would be the “Penis and Vagina Love Letters.”

Vera H-C Chan is the Times event editor. She can be reached at 925-977-8428 at vchan@cctimes.com.

THEATER review

* What: “The Vagina Monologues”

* STARRING: Susan Anton, Christina Pickles, Tracee Ellis Ross

* Where: Alcazar Theater, 650 Geary St., S.F.

* When: Through June 24. A June 26-July 8 run will star Michelle Clunie, Marga Gomez, Barbara Rush

* How much: $30-$50

* Call: 415-433-9500, www.tickets.com, www.theatreonthesquare.com

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