The dawn of electricity and the quest for sexual fulfillment. Who knew the two could be linked so satisfactorily on stage?
But then Thomas Edison gets profusely thanked in Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room or the vibrator play," a perceptive comedy about female liberation of a very specific kind.
This provocative, often quite funny play, which Lincoln Center Theater opened Thursday at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre, is Ruhl's most entertaining work to date. Not only because of its sexual subject matter but because she has created a parade of appealing, fully drawn characters, starting with the husband and wife at the center of her play. And Ruhl is dealing with some serious issues, too, most prominently the often difficult relationships between men and women and their misreadings of each other.
Dr. and Mrs. Givings are the epitome of proper, prosperous late 19th century American society.
Dr. Givings is a specialist in gynecological and hysterical disorders; Catherine, his wife, is a dutiful, devoted helpmate and a caring mother to their newborn daughter, even though she has trouble nursing the infant.
As the good doctor, the excellent Michael Cerveris personifies solicitousness, ever sympathetic to his patients' problems but unaware of his own wife's unhappiness. She's a woman who confesses at one point in the play, "I don't know what kind of person I am," and Laura Benanti perfectly captures her tremulous uncertainty.
Dr. Givings at least has a solution for his patients: "therapeutic electrical massage" to relieve a woman's nervous condition. It's accomplished with an electrically powered contraption located in his "operating theater," found in the room next to his home parlor.
"In the Next Room," which has been directed by Les Waters, also chronicles the change in Sabrina, one of Givings' patients. She's a frigid, fidgety woman who is transformed — the woman even begins playing the piano again — after sessions with the doctor's machine. Maria Dizzia accomplishes this blossoming with considerable emotion.
The doctor's wife is less successful at overcoming her own frustrations, especially after she starts listening through the parlor door to the sounds coming from her husband's operating theater.
In addition, the couple finds a wet nurse, who has recently lost her own child, to do duty for Catherine. She proves so successful that it sends Catherine further into a depression. The role is played by Quincy Tyler Bernstein, an actress of quiet power. She delivers an impassioned, heartbreaking speech about the woman's own dead child, and it's one of the play's highlights.
But matters get worse for Catherine with the arrival of a handsome, hedonistic English painter (Chandler Williams) who awakens even more ardor in the woman. He, too, is a patient of the doctor. But it is this artist who correctly identifies Catherine's problem, saying "Your soul is locked somewhere inside your body — so I cannot see it."
It's a longing her husband — so good at helping other woman — can't see in his own wife. She takes matters into her own hands, finally, in the play's last scene which features a passionate embrace in the falling snow.
The moment is a reminder that many of Ruhl's best known plays, such as "The Clean House," ''Eurydice" and "Dead Man's Cell Phone," have often been more fanciful. But none has been so sensual and dare we say it, surprisingly romantic, particularly in that wintery tableau.
Alert the authorities. Shocking sexual acts are taking place on the stage of the Lyceum Theater, right in the heart of the Broadway theater district, so recently scrubbed free of all smut and seeded with lawn chairs. Acts involving three people at a time, no less. A man and two women, a woman and two men, sometimes three men.
Before the prurient-minded descend on the box office, trench coats flapping in a frenzy of nostalgia, I should clarify that the one man involved in all these encounters is long since dead. Thomas Alva Edison takes part only in spirit, through the presence of the electric current in a peculiar machine being used to stimulate some of the participants in these startling displays.
At the risk of deflating excitement still further, I must add that the animating joke behind “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play,” the inspired new comedy by Sarah Ruhl that opened on Thursday at the Lyceum, is that the heady sensations aroused in the characters are considered by all involved to be therapeutic rather than erotic. Application of that electrified wand in the doctor’s hand may inspire shuddering moans, guttural cries and exhortations to God, but the instrument is considered by patient and doctor alike to be no more naughty than a stethoscope.
Set in the 1880s, just after the advent of electricity, “In the Next Room” takes place in the adjoining parlor and consulting room of an upstanding physician, Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris), who specializes in treating “hysteria” in women. A new patient, Mrs. Daldry (Maria Dizzia), exhibits all the disturbing symptoms of the condition. Sensitive to light and sound, and prone to headaches and weeping, she is ushered into Dr. Givings’s parlor by a concerned husband (Thomas Jay Ryan) who is relieved to hear a brisk diagnosis and assurances that after a few sessions of therapy his wife will be restored to full health.
“Thank you, Dr. Givings,” he says. “You have no idea what a source of anguish my wife’s illness has been to me.” There follows a little hiccup of a pause. “And to her, of course.”
While Mr. Daldry makes formal conversation with Dr. Givings’s bubbly, eccentric wife, played with bright-eyed, antic charm by Laura Benanti, Mrs. Daldry submits to the sober ministrations of the good doctor in the room next door. Off come the corset and the form-disfiguring gown. Up go the petticoats. (The costumes, by David Zinn, are both lushly pretty and witty in their elaborate construction.)
With his sturdy female assistant, Annie (Wendy Rich Stetson), offering clinical assistance, Dr. Givings fires up his therapeutic machine — the lights in the newly electrified house flicker as it comes on — and applies himself to the task before him. While Mrs. Daldry squirms in surprise and shock at the sensations being induced by this curious contraption, Dr. Givings remains brisk and businesslike. Staring into the middle distance, he makes soothing small talk, telling a lively little anecdote about Benjamin Franklin.
After just a few minutes Mrs. Daldry emerges from the room excited and oddly refreshed, a bloom already beginning to return to her cheeks. Who does not find a good Benjamin Franklin story stimulating?
Throughout “In the Next Room” Ms. Ruhl, one of the most gifted and adventurous American playwrights to emerge in recent years, makes lively but never cheap sport of the distance between our perceptions of Dr. Givings’s methods and the notions of the characters themselves. (The details of the treatment are all based on documented history.) Female sexual pleasure is so far from the mind of the average 19th-century man that he cannot recognize its display even when it is taking place literally beneath his nose.
But the ideas underpinning the play, about the fundamental lack of sympathy between men and women of the period, and the dubious scientific theories that sometimes reinforced women’s subjugation, are serious. “In the Next Room” illuminates with a light touch — a soft, flickering light rather than a moralizing glare — how much control men had over women’s lives, bodies and thoughts, even their most intimate sensations.
It takes some time before Mrs. Daldry and Mrs. Givings, whose curiosity about her husband’s methods leads to a session of mutual experimentation conducted with embarrassed giggles, can admit that the sensations aroused by the doctor’s electrified implement are pleasurable rather than alarming. And when Mrs. Givings’s wet nurse, Elizabeth (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), gently suggests that the feelings they describe are the same ones some women experience in bed with their husbands, they responded with stupefied silence, followed by dismissive laughter. They were raised to believe sex was something to be endured, not enjoyed.
“In the Next Room,” a Lincoln Center Theater production, is directed by Les Waters with a fine sensitivity to its varied textures. Insightful, fresh and funny, the play is as rich in thought as it is in feeling. It is also Ms. Ruhl’s most traditional work, taking place as it does in a single setting (realized with warmth by the set designer Annie Smart) and hewing closely to naturalism. Nonetheless, admirers of Ms. Ruhl’s fanciful imagination and flair for surreal imagery, given free rein in plays like “The Clean House” and “Eurydice,” will be gratified to know that she imbues her heroine, Mrs. Givings, with a penchant for flights of lyric fantasy and a tendency to speak her thoughts almost before she has formulated them.
Although Freud has barely begun charting the psyche, Mrs. Givings is more in touch with her physical, psychological and emotional needs than anyone else in the play. Ms. Benanti, a Tony winner for “Gypsy,” delivers Mrs. Givings’s madcap digressions with spiky, decidedly contemporary inflections, accentuating the proto-modernity trapped under those constricting corsets.
Despondent at what she perceives as her failure as a mother — her breasts cannot give the milk her new baby needs — Mrs. Givings conducts the traffic coming in and out of the doctor’s office, waylaying patients for conversation to keep her company. But she is always being left alone; it does not occur to her kind but distracted husband that a woman might need more stimulating company than a baby.
The play’s other female characters are insightfully inhabited by the lovely Ms. Dizzia, whose wild fluctuations between starchy propriety and unbridled emotionalism signify her character’s psychic dislocation; Ms. Bernstine, who brings a quiet dignity to her performance as the wet nurse; and Ms. Stetson as the crisply efficient but also sympathetic doctor’s assistant. Mr. Cerveris strikes the right note of kindly befuddlement as the doctor struggles to come to terms with his wife’s turbulent personality, while Chandler Williams brings a captivating histrionic swagger to his performance as a painter who also requires Dr. Givings’s therapeutic help after a romantic disappointment.
In pointing up female potential that goes untapped, Ms. Ruhl is occasionally guilty of overstatement. (Did Annie really also need to be a Greek scholar?) And perhaps because linear dramaturgy is not her specialty, “In the Next Room” is a little overplotted as it attempts to explore so many different aspects of women’s lives in the Victorian era.
But the play’s slight excesses can easily be forgiven, especially since women’s experience seems to have evaporated almost entirely from movie screens as a subject worthy of illumination through entertainment. (How apt that Meg Ryan, famed for simulating an orgasm on screen in a more fruitful era for Hollywood actresses, was spotted at a preview.) “In the Next Room” is a true novelty: a sex comedy designed not for sniggering teenage boys — or grown men who wish they were still sniggering teenage boys — but for adults with open hearts and minds.
More than a decade after Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues premiered downtown, an equally provocative and not unrelated v-word is making its Broadway debut.
Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Roomor the vibrator play (***½ out of four), which opened Thursday at the Lyceum Theatre, is set in the 1880s outside New York City, in the home of an impeccably gracious physician who has grown fond of the aforementioned gadget – as a therapeutic device. He uses it on hysterics, as emotionally disturbed women were known in that era, to produce healing, um, "paroxysms."
"The congestion is your womb is causing your hysterical symptoms," explains Dr. Givings, played with gentle humor and great sweetness by Michael Cerveris, to one patient. "If we can release some of that congestion ..." Well, you get the idea. Sounds like some geeky medical student's pitch to a porn producer, right?
But here's the thing: Some doctors actually did use vibrators in this fashion, even after the advent of modern psychology. It seems the dawn of the electrical age predated the realization of female desire and its complexity, at least in our puritanical culture.
This is one premise of Ruhl's ambitious and surprisingly moving play, which has little in common with Ensler's feel-good feminist tripe. By turns deftly farcical and deeply poignant, In the Next Room raises questions that transcend gender and, for that matter, time.
The last Ruhl play staged in New York, Dead Man's Cell Phone, addressed the potential for alienation in our digital era. Here, too, she explores the limits of technology and scientific progress. Dr. Givings bubbles with excitement over Thomas Edison's ingenuity, but he can't understand why his wife, fetchingly played by Laura Benanti, is so intrigued by the gadget that elicits strange noises from his patients.
Thanks to Annie Smart's split set, we can watch the doctor tend to those women – and a man, in one case – while Mrs. Givings chats with guests in the living room or, lacking company, leans in toward the door.
The laughs that result (and there are many) are offset by the difficulties endured by Ruhl's female characters. In addition to Mrs. Givings' anguish over her inability to breast-feed her infant daughter – a source of despair that her husband, for all his sensitivity, can't understand – there is the more quiet suffering of her wet nurse, a black housekeeper who lost her own son, and the doctor's assistant, Annie, whose graceful stoicism belies a lonely soul.
The actresses all do justice to this vivid, bittersweet humanity that Ruhl affords them, as do their male castmates. By showing how women and men struggle with both pleasure and pain, In the Next Room offers something a lot more satisfying than cheap thrills or cheesy self-empowerment.
Victorian repression gets a rude poke in Sarah Ruhl's typically idiosyncratic rumination on women's struggle to understand and explore their sexual selves, "In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play." While the signature 19th century ailment being treated is "hysteria," the chief weakness is the bipolar disorder of the inconsistent second act, which shifts uncertainly between serious developments and the more farcical business of romantic cross-currents. But there are so many lingering moments of emotional truth, and even more of daring comedy, that the play amuses and charms even if it doesn't quite satisfy.
While this is a less fanciful work than Ruhl's other New York outings to date, "The Clean House," "Eurydice" and "Dead Man's Cell Phone," the playwright's starting point is anything but conventional.
She returns to a time soon after the advent of electricity, before the handy titular appliance acquired sexual associations. Vibrators were marketed alongside vacuum cleaners; used by physicians to induce "paroxysms" in female -- and some male -- patients, suffering from neurosis or depression, at that time lumped under the catchall of "hysteria."
The medic wielding the wand here is Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris), a solicitous man of science who is kind but somewhat formal with his wife (Laura Benanti), a giddy beauty with an un-Victorian habit of saying whatever pops into her head.
"How extraordinary," says Mrs. Givings when she sneaks a peek at the boxy contraption. "It looks like a farming tool. Where do you put it?"
Her curiosity is further stoked by her deepening acquaintance with Mrs. Daldry (Maria Dizzia), a patient whose debilitating condition -- she's hypersensitive to light, cold and color, but unresponsive to the touch of her impatient husband (Thomas Jay Ryan) -- shows marked improvement after a few jolts of electricity. Mrs. Daldry also responds to the gentle care of Dr. Givings' assistant Annie (Wendy Rich Stetson), suggesting her marital malaise is rooted elsewhere.
Les Waters, who first directed the play at Berkeley Rep, has an agreeably light touch that allows the comedy to milk every ounce of naughtiness without tipping over into puerility.
The treatment scenes in particular benefit from staging that underlines the clinical nature of the approach while slyly tickling the audience's more contemporary attitudes toward sexuality and manual stimulation. And the scene in which Mrs. Givings and Mrs. Daldry turn into complicitous, giggling schoolgirls when they get their illicit hands on the doc's equipment is a riot.
Annie Smart's chintzy two-room set cleverly divides the action between drawing room and surgery, with the untapped well of feeling being unleashed in the doctor's office soon spilling out to erode the propriety of the home beyond that terribly serious inner sanctum. David Zinn's detailed period costumes add to the sense of a period-appropriate comedy of manners about an inappropriate subject.
It's when the play inches into more sober territory that it becomes lumpy. Benanti is a lovely comic actress and the guileless directness she brings to Mrs. Givings makes the character immensely likable, her too-contemporary delivery somewhat justified by her lack of a filter. But Ruhl has failed to foreshadow her deep dissatisfaction with her husband's remoteness, so when those feelings surface, they seem inorganic to the prevailing tone.
Mrs. Givings' nagging sense of inadequacy over not being able to feed her newborn baby contributes more successfully to the play's exploration of women's identity issues. But the Givings' employment of a black wet nurse (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) introduces a character who seems to belong in another play. This is especially bothersome in a speech about loss and resentment that's plangent and beautiful but ill-fitting. And it seems patronizing to have the black domestic be the one to enlighten the ladies that the frisson they're feeling in the doctor's office should be part of marital relations.
But Ruhl has a gift for unexpected moments of stirring poetry, and there are a number of them here, such as a bold but delicate demonstration of affection between Annie and Mrs. Daldry. Even the cloying conclusion, in which Mrs. Givings gently coaxes her husband toward the passionate spontaneity she requires in their marriage, has a beguiling lyrical quality.
Original as it is, all this doesn't gel into a cohesive tone. The play's more soulful reflections about love, marriage and men's difficulty in understanding women's needs clash against the comedy, which in the second act shifts to romantic entanglements (unlikely infatuations spring up to increasingly tiresome effect) and a strained succession of inopportune entrances and exits.
The fine cast keeps it engrossing, however, with all but Bernstine acting in a heightened theatrical style that underlines the distinctiveness of Ruhl's voice.
Benanti's daffy vulnerability is nicely paired with Cerveris' sweet-natured impassivity. His bafflement, which turns to mild anger, when Mrs. Givings suggests he kiss her during treatment is both funny and touching.
Chandler Williams injects a buoyant, bohemian spirit in act two as an artist seeking a cure for his romantic ache. And he's nothing if not game -- submitting to a prostate massage is not generally part of the classical repertoire.
But the most delectable turn comes from Dizzia, in a series of preposterous hats that make mockery of Mrs. Daldry's self-dramatizing melancholia. Her journey from stifled unhappiness to something approaching self-awareness is one of the chief rewards of this intriguing but imperfect play.