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Theater review: 'In the Next Room or the vibrator play' at South Coast Repertory

October 3, 2010 |  3:00 pm

Vibrator 1
Don’t let the title of Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room or the vibrator play” make you nervous. This daringly inventive play, which is receiving a tasteful production at South Coast Repertory, does indeed revolve around an appliance that’s normally hidden in the back of a private drawer. But prurience isn’t the author’s style.
 
The mission of this elegantly constructed drama, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year, is to liberate from silence the subject of female sexuality. But that doesn't mean it's an earnest sequel to Eve Ensler's “The Vagina Monologues.”

Blending quiescent naturalism with her customary eccentric farce, Ruhl conjures into existence a dramatic world that’s at once unique and universal. Less surreal than the playwright's “The Clean House” and “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” but no less quirky, “In the Next Room” introduces us to characters whose very strangeness becomes a source of psychological fascination and emotional concern, particularly as their longings begin surfacing from secret depths.

Vibrator 2 The play, directed by Casey Stangl, is set in a well-to-do spa town outside of New York City in the late 1880s. Electricity has only recently arrived in people’s homes, changing their daily lives in manifold ways and ushering in a whole host of inventions and discoveries.

Dr. Givings (Andrew Borba), whose home and adjoining office are handsomely laid out by scenic designer John Arnone, is on the forefront of this scientific revolution. His medical practice specializes in the treatment of hysteria, a condition especially prevalent among unhappily married women. Operating under the theory that hysterical symptoms (weepiness, frigidity, an undue sensitivity to light) are caused by “congestion in the womb,” the doctor induces a “paroxysm” in his patients by use of a gadget that he applies with his trusty assistant, Annie (Libby West), an accomplished midwife who reads Ancient Greek. 

The treatment is completely clinical, except for the groans and ecstatic shouts that ensue. The reactions of the women on the examination table, in fact, are so unrestrained, that Catherine (Kathleen Early), the doctor’s wife in the next room, can’t help being curious about what this new therapy entails. A chatterbox with self-esteem issues, she lurks outside his office door searching for clues to what’s happening on the other side.
  
Catherine’s insecurities (which Early renders with broad comic strokes) have been exacerbated of late by her inability to produce adequate breast milk for her baby. But she’s also upset by her husband’s inattention.  When new patients arrive, she greets them with a tidal wave of backlogged conversation. Fortunately, her neurotic friendliness is infectious, and the hysterics feel right at home with her.
 
One of the afflicted, Sabrina Daldry (Rebecca Mozo), dressed in a veil and accompanied by her patronizing husband (Tom Shelton), would seem to be a hopeless case when she shows up at the doctor’s door. But after a few sessions, she’s trading confidences with Catherine, playing the piano again and falling in love with Annie, who has more success in the paroxysm department than Dr. Givings.

When I first saw the play at Berkeley Rep, I was charmed by the free-form nature of the exchanges that took place among the women, a group that includes Elizabeth (played here by the lovely and talented Tracey A. Leigh), the African American wet nurse for Catherine’s baby. Rather than supplying her characters with straightforward dialogue, Ruhl invents playful ways for them to express themselves, often involving a code that speaks to their subordinate position in society.

Not all of the hysterics, incidentally, are female. Leo Irving (Ron Menzel), a dashing and wildly romantic painter, is also undergoing treatment, a development that both excites and bewilders Catherine, who doesn’t understand how her husband’s machine (which she has finally tested out) can be of benefit to him. Details are kept from her, but Dr. Givings does concede, “Hysteria is very rare in a man, but then again, he is an artist.”

Stangl’s production, which is less subtle than director Les Waters’ handling of the play at Berkeley Rep and subsequently on Broadway, is perhaps better at sorting out the story. The focus is now solidly on Catherine’s marriage, with the incipient romance between Sabrina and Annie getting short shrift as a result. This is a more conventional interpretation, but it builds our investment in the husband and wife’s emotional connection, which provides the dramatic through line. 

Borba’s Dr. Givings is neither too tyrannical, as he was played at Berkeley Rep, nor too gentle, as he was played on Broadway. The character is both progressive in his intellectual views and regressive in his sensitivity to his wife's feelings, and Borba, who is required to relinquish all his clothes at the end in a symbolic act of shedding his scientific armor, brings these contradictory qualities into perfect balance.

“In the Next Room” was just as absorbing the third time around. That might not be sufficient reason to call the play a modern classic, but it’s without question Ruhl’s most satisfying drama. She is a dramatist worthy of our intimate acquaintance.

— Charles McNulty

twitter.com\charlesmcnulty

"In the Next Room or the vibrator play," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays (call for exceptions). Ends Oct. 17. $28 to $66. (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Photos: Top: Kathleen Early (left), Andrew Borba and Rebecca Mozo. Bottom: Early and Mozzo. Credit: Henry DiRocco/SCR.

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