Skip to content

January 6, 2010

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play

by Jesse North
When a play needs to have a parenthetical statement added to its title, that’s a red flag. Particularly when the addition is “or the vibrator play.” It’s a sign that the creative team does not have full faith in their work’s potential to bring in crowds on merit alone. It’s the ‘when in doubt, ‘give ’em shock value’ philosophy.

The problem with adding this subtitle to In the Next Room is that it doesn’t fit the tone of the piece. This jocular addition would better fit the style of a show like Avenue Q or [title of show]. This play by Sarah Ruhl has some jokes, yes; good ones, at that. But at its heart, it is a drama about a historical turning point in the sexual education of adults.

Michael Cerveris plays Dr. Givings, a physician who treats women (and sometimes men) with “hysteria” and anxiety with his “paroxysm” tool, which will in the future be referred to as a vibrator. His wife, played by Laura Benanti, is inquisitive about her husband’s medical treatments, which go on in the room adjacent to the couple’s living room (hence In the Next Room). But her husband is annoyingly rigid about what he divulges about his practices and thus shelters Mrs. Givings.

Benanti and Maria Dizzia portray the characters that interestingly demonstrate how women were regarded at the time, in terms of their concerns and problems. Dizzia plays Mrs. Daldry, Dr. Givings’ new patient. She is sensitive to sunlight, bursts into fits of tears, and is exceedingly anxious. Her unhelpful husband (Thomas Jay Ryan) drops her off at the doctor’s practice, and does just that. He leaves after pointing out to Dr. Givings just how much an inconvenience his wife’s troubles have been to him, never minding how she feels.

In the Next Room shows a time and setting where married couples didn’t derive pleasure from sex. When Mrs. Givings’ child’s wet nurse suggests to her and Mrs. Daldry that the feelings of physical pleasure they described after their paroxysm treatments are feelings she herself has gotten from her husband, the two women glance at each other and laugh in bewilderment. Pleasure from having sex with my husband? Get out of here!

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play isn’t necessarily about the first clinical use of the vibrator. Ruhl uses the subject to highlight what was going on in American marriages at the time. And although it is an interesting and roundabout way to hit at the topic, what Ruhl reveals about the invention of the vibrator itself is quite interesting. The setting of the play is at the dawn of the electric age. These people were discovering all sorts of ways the new convenience could impact their lives.

While everyone in the play is feeling the first impacts of electricity on everyday life, no one is more wrapped up in it than Dr. Givings. His head has been so focused on the science of electricity, and the benefit it can have on a person, that he neglects to take emotional care of his wife, and she is hurting from it. This role is a curious one for Cerveris, who pulled off a genius performance as Sweeney Todd in the 2005 revival. While Dr. Givings and his new tool are crucial to the play, he doesn’t do all that much on stage—Mrs. Givings and Mrs. Daldry forward most of the action. Cerveris is fine in the role, but I don’t know that it was the right role for him. While he doesn’t make any missteps, it doesn’t allow him to showcase either.

Benanti is delightful as Mrs. Givings. Her cheery and inquisitive demeanor gets a lot of laughs, but her tender moments are true as well. Dizzia locks down the best role, as the treatment-hungry Mrs. Daldry. She nails the awkwardness of having to be (medically) pleasured on stage, and pulls us into the belief of her experiencing these exotic sensations for the first time. She perfectly switches between socially proper and composed to schoolgirl frenzied the next moment.

The look of the play is splendid, with a gorgeous Givings household by Annie Smart and lavish costumes by David Zinn. I haven’t seen a period play in a long time—at least one that actually used a detailed period setting—and it was refreshing.

In the Next Room says a lot, but doesn’t deliver too much in terms of a walloping story. It’s one of those tricky plays where I walked away thinking, “That was really interesting,” but didn’t feel anything very deep. I guess that was the problem of the characters in the play too. Maybe I could use a… oh, never mind.

Editor’s note: I was invited to see In the Next Room, or the vibrator play and did not rush it. There is a student rush policy for the show. Tickets are $21.50 each and go on sale two hours prior to the performance. Only one ticket per ID.

Play: C+

Leave a Reply

Note: HTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to comments