Wednesday, December 2, 2009

It's All in the Title

In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Les Waters
Starring Laura Benanti, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Michael Cerveris, Maria Dizzia, Thomas Jay Ryan, Wendy Rich Stetson, Chandler Williams

Performances October 22, 2009-January 10, 2010
Lyceum Theatre
149 West 45th St

Cerveris and Benanti in In the Next Room...
That 19th century doctors treated women for hysteria with vibrators is a rich subject for any playwright, and the welcome insights of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play begin with its title, which juxtaposes a refined description with a blunt one. The title also clues us into how Ruhl structures her stimulating play.

In an upstate spa town, Dr. Givings treats female patients with a new electric-powered contraption that gives them “release,” i.e., orgasm, an unfamiliar response. As he works behind the locked door of his examination room, his wife—with a newborn in tow—stands outside, intrigued by what’s happening. Endlessly curious and childlike, Mrs. Givings is a woman of both the Victorian era and of ours. Unable to satisfy her child with her own milk, she and the doctor hire a black wet-nurse, which bodes ill for her worth in this phallocentric society.

Mrs. Givings naively but frankly spits out questions and comments that raise eyebrows among the refined class; that she never crosses the line to boorishness is due mostly to the irresistible Laura Benanti, not only a terrific singer (she sings a lovely song twice) but also a first-class comedienne, as she first proved in Christopher Durang’s Torture Is Wrong last spring. As enchanting as Benanti makes Mrs. Givings, however, Ruhl’s multi-layered writing is also an asset as it pivotally balances farcical scenes between doctor and patient with an astute dissection of attitudes toward the newly invented electric light, which advance the play beyond mere shock effects.

Ruhl blends biting contemporary chit-chat with authentically perfumed Victorian-era dialogue to create exhilarating conversations that show her characters caught between their era and the play’s modern sensibility. Ruhl even compensates for a loss in focus at the end of Act I, when she gets carried away showing how the vibrator becomes an object of self-satisfaction for women unfamiliar with orgasms. Ruhl smartly introduces an artist, Leo Irving, to begin Act II; a man also receiving Dr. Givings’ “treatment,” Leo is a real coup, since he gives Mrs. Givings a like-minded “outsider” to play off and also prevents the play from degenerating into a door-slamming farce, which it flirts with in Act II.

Benanti’s radiant anchor of a performance makes one wonder how the play would work without her rare and marvelous ability to be credibly modern and Victorian simultaneously. Still, there is Michael Cerveris’ usual intelligence on display as Dr. Givings; Maria Dizzia’s outsized but never broadly comic Mrs. Daldry, a patient who relishes returning for more “therapy”; Thomas Jay Ryan’s superbly close-to-the-vest Mr. Daldry; Quincy Tyler Bernstine’s efficient wet-nurse Elizabeth; Chandler Williams’ dazzlingly showy artist Leo; and Wendy Rich Stetson’s prim doctor’s assistant Annie.

Director Les Waters, with help from Annie Smart’s boldly imaginative set—which elegantly morphs from the studied interior of the Givings’ home into the wintry outdoors for the play’s final, brazenly fanciful image—makes Ruhl’s audacious play into one of the most pleasurable theatrical events of the season.
originally posted on

No comments: