In the Next Room, Or the Vibrator Play

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Editorial Review

Theater review: Sarah Ruhl's 'In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play' doesn't resonate

By Peter Marks
Friday, September 3, 2010

Sarah Ruhl has been polarizing audiences ever since her breakthrough play, the daft but tenderly embraceable domestic comedy "The Clean House." Her work straddles a precarious line between offbeat observation and outright preciousness, a characteristic that can leave cold those with low tolerance for whimsical and gauzy treatments of matters of the intellect and heart.

Many playgoers (myself included) enjoy the imaginative latticework of her tall theatrical tales, whether addressing the mystical properties of technology ("Dead Man's Cell Phone") or even the intersection of politics and religion ("Passion Play, a Cycle").

Which is why it's an unhappy task to have to note that her latest effort, "In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play," is to date both her most accessible offering -- and her least impressive. Presented in an often becomingly acted package at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, the play ultimately forces outsize comic possibilities into a fairly predictable dramatic enclosure. The provocative device at its core seems a titillating gimmick rather than that more inviting Ruhl instrument: buoyant insight.

"In the Next Room" has accorded the dramatist some mainstream recognition: It had a brief, 60-performance run on Broadway that ended in January and garnered serious Pulitzer and Tony Award consideration. The combination of racy title and easily followed plot probably made it seem a more promising commercial option than the loftier ideas of her more theatrically challenging plays.

Admirers of Ruhl's casual association with conventionality can find moments to savor early in "Room." But after a funny Act 1 setup -- a series of scenes in which sheltered middle-class women of post-Civil War America are exposed to the joy of sex via hand-held device -- the play's power lines come down. Ruhl resorts in Act 2 to resolving the sort of relationship problems that these days seem ho-hum, even by the standards of Lifetime. A wife who wants her husband to be friskier? Another who's turned on by her nurse? It says something about the tying up of the evening's soapy contrivances that "In the Next Room" appears to end several times before the stage finally goes dark.

The seeds of a rich concept are apparent in the age of tightly corseted social standards for women that forms Ruhl's backdrop. (The precise year remains vague, but it's around the time electricity was becoming available in the American home.)

The play details the lack of knowledge that women had of their bodies and the lengths to which men went to sustain that ignorance. To that end, "In the Next Room" takes place in the house and clinic of Dr. Givings (Eric Hissom), a well-intentioned (and well-named) quack convinced that the way to relieve the depression and frustration of his female patients is to induce a "paroxysm." In other words, apply an electrical apparatus to their private parts. What the doctor doesn't realize is that he's simply allowing them to sexually climax, through his accidental invention of the vibrator.

The treatments prove exceptionally popular for clients such as Sabrina Daldry (Kimberly Gilbert), whose marriage to the clueless Mr. Daldry (James Konicek) has left her so hypersensitive that she can't even bear to see vibrant colors. Watching the comedically gifted Gilbert as she warms to the sessions "in the next room" -- with Sarah Marshall in a deliciously deadpan performance as the nurse -- provides the evening's high points. The manner of treatment of a male patient, a painter (Cody Nickell) getting over a broken love affair, adds a layer of homoerotic irony to the proceedings.

As it happens, however, the plot turns most centrally around the doctor's wife Catherine (the lovely Katie deBuys), who desperately seeks more intimacy with her husband and mourns the fact that -- for lack of her own breast milk -- she must hire another woman (Jessica Frances Dukes) to feed her child. Around these issues of adequacy and thwarted desire the story lumbers on, managing to become ever less involving as the dilemmas of the household come ever more blandly into focus.

Director Aaron Posner elicits appealing portrayals from his cast, especially deBuys, whose dewy determination gives Catherine a formidable spine. Somehow, though, the performances don't gel into a compelling whole, perhaps because Ruhl has come up only with a static premise.

A staging problem has been created, too, courtesy of the rows of spectator seats built onstage, above Daniel Conway's circular blond wood set: Some audience members up there can't see the play's activity when it occurs directly below them and, as a result, they're repeatedly forced to stand and lean over. They should want to catch everything costume designer Helen Q. Huang sends into the spotlight. The gorgeous coats and dresses that emerge from her sketch pads give a needed jolt to a play that provides only intermittent stimulation.

By Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Aaron Posner. Lighting, Colin K. Bills; composer, James Sugg. About 2 hours 40 minutes.

Preview: Woolly Mammoth's 'In the Next Room'

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, August 20, 2010

Let's talk about sex, shall we?

No?

Too awkward?

If you think it's a taboo subject even in the age of Kardashians and sexting, imagine how it might go over if you were a lace-collared lady of the 1800s.

Sarah Ruhl, one of the nation's hottest young playwrights, dares to dream of just such Victorian-era naughtiness in "In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play," which kicks off Woolly Mammoth Theatre's new season Monday. Take the proper-but-fiery women of a Jane Austen novel, add Ruhl's wicked sense of humor and one electrical outlet, and you've got this spirited, funny (and, yes, blush-inducing) play.

"In a way," says Woolly Mammoth artistic director Howard Shalwitz, "you can see the whole women's movement, the whole sexual liberation thing packed into this little play."

(There's also a bit of tasteful nudity and a lot of hanky-panky, but Shalwitz insists that the play is "no nudie show.")

Ruhl has described "In the Next Room" as "a play hovering at the dawn of electricity." The current runs through the playwright's meticulously factual fantasy, in which Edison's invention has allowed one particularly dedicated physician to create an electrical device sure to cure the litany of ailments -- malaise, crying fits, you name it -- plaguing his female patients.

Spoiler alert: It buzzes.

And the buzz, promises the good doctor, is just what the soul ordered; in a short few moments, it'll produce a "paroxysm," relieving a patient of all of her pent-up, er, stress.

The doctor's work is performed in an in-home "operating theater" -- dubbed "the next room." It is only a matter of time before his wife wants to know what the heck is going on in there.

"In the Next Room," which was produced on Broadway last year, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize as well as a Tony Award, but Shalwitz had spotted Ruhl's talents long before.

In 2005, Woolly Mammoth staged her work "The Clean House," then followed up with the premiere of Ruhl's "Dead Man's Cell Phone," which went on to off-Broadway. (Arena Stage also produced a Ruhl work, "Passion Play, a Cycle.")

Each of Ruhl's plays is an exercise in imagination, in which a quirky plot masks the playwright's explanation of a larger theme. "In the Next Room," says Shalwitz, is a "comic fantasy. It's about the future. In some ways, it's about the invention of modern female sexuality."

"You feel as though these women are experiencing something as if for the first time. And it seems almost quaint and charming -- and moving."

To help capture that fragile balance between the age-old and the contemporary, the historical and the entirely devised, the theater tapped director Aaron Posner, a frequent director at Round House and Folger Theatre (where his projects have included the lauded "Orestes, a Tragic Romp" and the magic-infused "Macbeth"). It will be the first show at Woolly for Posner, who has known Shalwitz for almost two decades.

For "In the Next Room," "I was really interested in a director with a big vision who comes from a classical direction," Shalwitz says. "We'd rather make sure the play is on a sharper edge where it's asking questions of a contemporary audience. I think Aaron is doing that in a great way."

If all the pillow talk has you piqued, the whole Woolly season -- which the theater has dubbed "Striptease of Your Subconscious" -- will continue the theme, with shows including "House of Gold" (about a murdered child beauty queen) and "Oedipus el Rey" (a modern reworking of the tale of Oedipus, set in a barrio).

"They're exotically different worlds, and yet they all are looking at the edge of our sexual behavior," Shalwitz explains. "It's like looking at the line between what's acceptable or not acceptable, or what's moving us from the past to the future.

And "In the Next Room" will set the tone, he says. "In a way, it's a perfect introduction to the whole season, to introduce a private topic in a very public way. To me, what the play is teasing out is intimacy.

"That's the challenge the play is laying at the audience: Okay, you can talk about these things in public," Shalwitz says, "but what does it mean to actually talk about them in private, to reach a point of intimacy in a relationship, where the physical and the emotional are kind of working in tandem?"