Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 19, 2009
In the Next Room Or The Vibrator Play by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Les Waters. Sets by Annie Smart. Costumes by David Zinn. Lighting by Russell H. Champa. Sound by Bray Poor. Music by Jonathan Bell. Cast in alphabetical order: Laura Benanti, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Michael Cerveris, Maria Dizzia, Thomas Jay Ryan, Wendy Rich Stetson, Chandler Williams.
Set in the 1880s, a while after the Civil War and soon after the harnessing of electricity for public use, the story follows Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris), a psycho-gynecologist who specifies in alleviating “hysteria.” We might wave it away as merely sexual frustration today, but back then it was serious business, the fulcrum for a society about to ricochet from repression into liberation. Electricity has meant for Dr. Givings a way of speeding up his cure for hysteria, by allowing him to, ahem, stimulate women more efficiently than ever before.
We see one of his female patients, Mrs. Daldry (Maria Dizzia), have her entire life changed by the exposure; a male artist patient, Leo Irving (Chandler Williams), has a similar epiphany, though Dr. Givings’s specific method of curing him - by engaging the prostate - will not be elucidated here for the benefit of my male readers. Their turnarounds are immediate and total, affecting the way they interact with everyone around them. Alas, the one woman who can’t be helped is perhaps the one most in need: Catherine (Laura Benanti), Dr. Givings’s wife, who’s fascinated and distanced by the secret goings-on in her husband’s operating theater and can’t understand why she must live with the ill humors he’s eager to remove from everyone else.
It’s, uh, a juicy premise to be sure, but Ruhl’s not content to let it shallowly sell itself. She’s buried beneath all this a very serious look at how everyone is suppressing or hiding from something, not just those willing to be subjected to Dr. Givings’s machines. Mrs. Daldry’s husband (Thomas Jay Ryan) is himself trapped in the delicacy of the period, as unsure as his wife why his marriage is fizzling. Dr. Givings’s nurse, Annie (Wendy Rich Stetson), who administers the treatments, is crippled by plenty of unmet longings of her own. And Elizabeth (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), Catherine’s black wet nurse, is caught between several competing kinds of prejudice and loss.
Counting adultery, classism, lesbianism, racism, artistic inspiration, the disintegration of social prudishness, the landscape of scientific progress, and a modern history of wet nursing in addition the dual-headed main story of vibrator theory and the accidental collapse of a marriage, Ruhl has loaded In the Next Room with too many expansive topics to do any of them justice. Neither she nor her director, Les Waters, is capable of drawing your attention to the threads of greatest importance, which instead of elevating everything only increases the insignificance of each individual portion.
This is most evident in Benanti’s extremely uneasy performance - apparently unable to decide whether Catherine needs to be played as a contemporary woman or a hyper-corseted Victorian, she thus plays both simultaneously to nonexistent effect. Cerveris tries to make Dr. Givings a man of dispassionate detachment, but shoots past clinical and into comatose. Stetson is hampered by a thankless role that delivers a very weak (and predictable) payoff, and has trouble reconciling Annie’s dedication with the desires she keeps hidden. Bernstine is decent but downbeat as Elizabeth; and Dizzia finds all the fun possible in the sole role that really allows it.
If not for her, and Annie Smart’s lovely set and David Zinn’s judiciously elaborate costumes, things would still be far too heavy - that's typical of Ruhl’s work. But I must give credit to the playwright, who for the first time shows she can behave herself even while going overboard. Her previous plays have evinced a smug addiction to style at the expense of substance - more self-gratification than dramatization. That quality is present here only in tiny doses; the result is a play that was to entertain, engage, and enlighten the audience - and, at the performance I attended, seemed to succeed.
Ruhl should continue her exploration of those concepts. But she also needs to learn that more is not always necessarily better, and that telling 12 different stories well is almost always harder than telling one well. Distilling things down to fewer but more crystalline messages and plot points would make everything present better. As it is, In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play is a superb 80-minute lark locked in a 150-minute play’s lumbering, pent-up body. The chances are that it could be just as free-spirited as it thinks it is if, like Dr. Givings’s patients, its own base needs were better recognized and met.