Theater review

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

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

In the Next Room, or

the Vibrator Play

by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Aaron Posner. Lighting, Colin K. Bills; composer, James Sugg. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through Sept. 26 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Visit or call 202-393-3939.

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