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Review: 'In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)' at Berkeley Rep

February 5, 2009 |  1:43 pm


What do women want?  The question flummoxed Freud, whose erotic theories drew mostly blanks when it came to the opposite sex.

Sarah Ruhl, the effervescent playwriting talent who has given fresh meaning to the overused word “quirky,” doesn’t have many answers herself. But in her latest offering, “In the Next Room (or the vibrator play),” which is having its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, she has a little mechanical device to suggest to women still sorting out the conundrums of love, sex and equality.
Directed by Les Waters in a manner that quietly and vividly serves the writing, the play is at its best when it disregards the dramatic rules altogether. There’s an acute playfulness at work, an unabashed enjoyment in letting characters test out new possibilities for themselves as they gain insight into the mind-body phenomenon of human sexuality and the oppressive forces that shape its expression.  Unfortunately, a sentimental ending mars what still has the potential to be a modern masterpiece.   

The body as undiscovered country might seem like a quaintly Victorian notion, a throwback to 19th century corset-wearing repression. Yet even in our post-liberated era, the idea of being a stranger to one’s carnal self is hardly a stretch. Though the play is set in 1880s America, at a time when the electric light had just been introduced into people’s homes and gadgets of all kinds (all right, settle down, everyone!) are rapidly changing the world, the subject doesn’t feel like a history lesson in the least.

Hannah_cabell_and_paul_biebanck_2The story revolves around the clinical practice of Dr. Givings (Paul Niebanck), who has been working with a handy new device to treat hysteria. Actually, it’s a rather cumbersome piece of machinery, one that regularly short-circuits the rest of his house, where his manic young wife, Catherine (Hannah Cabell), neurotically paces with her infant daughter as a diabolical din swells around them. (Annie Smart’s homey scenic design unlocks this curious locale for us). 

Catherine, who feels rather ashamed at not being able to produce adequate breast milk for her baby, has more or less lost her husband to his new science. Alone with her insecurities, she can’t help but latch on to every patient who passes through her  home en route to her husband’s "operating theater," which, truth be told, sounds more like a groaning den of iniquity.

Mr. Daldry (John Leonard Thompson), the epitome of respectable male arrogance, turns up with his weepy wife, Sabrina (Maria Dizzia), who has grown intolerant to light, color and his touch. But after Dr. Givings electronically induces a “paroxysm” in her, this high-strung woman is once again inspired to play the piano, banging out a moody piece in a miraculous resurgence of her former creativity.
Sabrina is also falling deeply in love with the doctor’s assistant, Annie (Stacy Ross), an unmarried midwife who reads ancient Greek and is called in to help with the treatment whenever its effect stubbornly refuses to arrive. The hushed interaction between these two gifted women is remarkable for the way it allows the audience to realize, alongside the characters, that the love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name is having a hard time keeping its mouth closed.   

Just as marvelously free-form is the way Catherine and Sabrina become friends, with Catherine improvising nonsensical lyrics to one of Sabrina’s somber compositions. The communication among these characters happens more through indirection than explicit exchange, and this pattern of conversation becomes more evident when Elizabeth (Melle Powers), Sabrina’s beautiful African American housekeeper, is brought in as a wet nurse for Catherine’s baby.

The scenes are suffused throughout with more sociological meaning than actual dialogue, which only makes sense when you consider that these women have been deprived of the basic concepts and vocabulary to understand the conflicts between their biological and social conditions. But not all the suffering is female — Leo Irving (Joaquín Torres), an artist who has found himself unable to paint after an aborted romance, has sought out the doctor’s special cure, and his handsome presence is greatly unsettling to Catherine, who’s baffled at the idea of a man seeing her husband.

“Hysteria is very rare in a man, but then again, he’s an artist,” Dr. Givings explains.

Funny stuff, but the problem facing the playwright is how to move all this rich material forward without resorting to the bullying masculine contrivances of plot. Ruhl, who has struck me on occasion as the sensitive love child of John Guare and Paula Vogel (I’m speaking, of course, about her seriously frolicsome sensibility), seems to be taking some of her cues here from Maria Irene Fornes, whose great play “Fefu and her Friends” is another ingenious exploration of the challenging flux of female identity.

But Ruhl is no card-carrying feminist when it comes to her writing. Just as with “The Clean House,” “Eurydice” and “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” the woman-centered whimsy of  “In the Next Room,” is ultimately more personal than political. Emotions adamantly refuse to march in lock step with progressive ideology. But though this idiosyncratic bent might seem to be a liberating virtue, it leads to the work’s one gaping shortcoming — a wintry resolution of saccharine conventionality.   

Without giving too much away, the ending involves the making of marital snow angels, a metaphor that was banned in short stories ages ago and should be outlawed from this point forward in the theater.   

It’s especially disappointing because up to about the midway point of the second half of this well-acted production, I was thinking that this was the most original American play I’ve seen in years. But this swerve to commercial banality shouldn’t eclipse the accomplishment of this otherwise breathtakingly inventive addition to Ruhl’s singular body of work.    

-- Charles McNulty 

Top photo: Maria Dizzia, left, Stacy Ross and Hannah Cabell  in "In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)." Bottom photo: Cabell and Paul Niebanck. Credit: