Sarah Ruhl’s Edwardian sex comedy doesn’t measure up
For anyone who grew up post-“Our Bodies, Our Selves” or has ever been exposed to the self-indulgent body musings of Eve Ensler, it may be inconceivable that there was a time when the orgasm was a mystery, sexual pleasure was somehow illicit, and women –– and men, for that matter –– didn’t think their bodies were an inexhaustible topic of interest.
It wasn’t so long ago, actually, that this was precisely the case –– as recently as the Edwardian period leading up to the First World War. Sara Ruhl takes us back there in her new play, “In the Next Room or the vibrator play.”
In it, we meet Dr. Givings, who is enamored of his new technology that helps treat women’s hysteria by applying electrical stimulation to the genitals. Givings, a man of science besotted with technology, takes a purely clinical attitude to the proceedings while his young, vivacious wife soon discovers, through bonding with a female patient, that there may be something more to this. Sadly, she is kept away from the mysterious device and relegated to the next room. In her isolation, she becomes increasingly high strung until she ultimately draws her husband out of his cerebral world and into a more carnal one.
There is a subplot about Mrs. Givings’ inability to breast-feed their baby that introduces an African-American wet nurse who, rather offensively, proves merely a literary device to show that her people know something about the sexual pleasure that eludes her white employers.
The play makes interesting observations about gender roles at a time when many sexual relationships had a purely procreative function, but it also points up the intellectual seeds that decades later flowered into women’s liberation in its many cultural manifestations. “In the Next Room,” ultimately, is about breaking free of stifling belief systems and achieving self-knowledge as a sexual being. Ruhl toys with Freud’s famous question: “What do women want?,” and in the world depicted on stage, the answer is connection, intimacy, and, if not power over men, at least a little more equitable balance.
The play is sometimes charming, but though billed as a comedy it is only intermittently funny. Even though Dr. Givings says hysteria in males is very rare, in one scene he decides to treat a man. Instead of stimulating a womb, he goes for the prostate, with all the predictable verbal and visual jokes.
The cast works very hard to bring the play to life, but director Les Waters lets his actors run away with their parts so that taken together their efforts often feel disjointed, even labored. Unfortunately, for all its noble intentions, “In the Next Room” seems slight.
Michael Cerveris is adequate as Dr. Givings, but he seems like an actor working his craft more than a fully realized human character. Laura Benanti is erratic as Mrs. Givings, though it’s always wonderful to hear her sing. Mrs. Daldry, whose daily stimulation sets the plot in motion, is played with skill by Maria Dizzia. She enjoys the play’s best moments, trying to figure out what’s happening to her body and whether or not what she perceives as pleasure should be enjoyed.
Quincy Tyler Bernstein is allowed to portray only a stereotype as the wet nurse, but she does so competently. Thomas Jay Ryan as Mr. Daldry and Wendy Rich Stetson as Annie, Dr. Giving’s assistant, also serve as narrative devices, illustrating different gender archetypes.
Annie Smart’s set is well done, as is Russell H. Champa’s lighting design. David Zinn’s costumes are perfection, providing the evening’s most interesting elements.
I have heard many reactions to this play –– from rapture to repulsion –– and my take falls somewhere in the middle. It offers moments of engagement with a cast of actors always worth seeing, but there certainly were times when I wondered whether I might find better entertainment spending the evening in my own other room.
IN THE NEXT ROOM
OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY
149 W. 45th St.
Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.
Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m.