In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play has buzzed into town for the second time in the past couple of years, and you know what they say about a good thing: you can’t get too much of it. Nor, in Sarah Ruhl’s witty, brittle, and eventually compassionate 2009 comedy, can the frustrated Victorian wives in the orbit of the stiffly scientific Dr. Givings get too much of the good doctor’s marvelous electrical vibrating machine, which, when applied to certain delicate portions of the body, induces “hysterical paroxysms” that ease stress and bring a youthful flush to the cheek. Daily applications seem advisable. Sometimes, multiple daily applications work best.
Profile Theatre’s new production at Artists Rep is crisper and more decidedly shaped than the one that played at Triangle Productions in spring 2013, but both capture the spirit of Ruhl’s appealingly off-center humor: her brain works a little differently from most people’s, gravitating naturally to an off-angle approach to things, and as a result her plays are heady, ticklish, exploratory things, little adventures into outlandish territory that surprise you by ending up somewhere near the center of the heart. Profile is in the midst of its season of Ruhl plays, with In the Next Room following a sterling production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone and leading up to a fall production of Passion Play.
I find myself in a bit of an awkward position in regard to The Vibrator Play, because as much as I admire it and Ruhl, it’s not a play I especially needed to see twice in two years. Other than to note differences in directing and acting styles, I found no hidden insights, no unexplored depths, the second time around: then again, like all of the men in the play, I can be a little dense. It remains a good, solid play, and Profile gives it a good, solid, enjoyable production. Better than solid, really. If at times it seems a little clipped and calculated, that approach makes metaphorical sense, and it leads to a couple of genuine emotional climaxes that are honestly touching: an impulsive kiss that shocks and confuses two people; a stripping-down and starting-over by a husband and wife.
In the Next Room runs the risk of being a one-joke play: Victorian ladies discover vibrators, and like the way they make them feel, even though they don’t seem to make the connection between the treatment and sex. It’s a bit like the Meg Ryan fake-orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally, on continuous loop. And, granted, it’s a good joke. But as Ruhl writes it, and Adriana Baer directs it for Profile, and her sparkling cast acts it, the joke’s a lead-in to some more probing explorations of gender, tenderness, emotional fulfillment, and the dawning of women’s rights. Were the medical profession and their clients of the 1880s as innocent of the vibrator’s sexual implications as the play makes them out to be? I’m not quite old enough to give a first-hand report from the scene, but I have my doubts. Still, I’m more than willing to suspend my disbelief for the sake of a well-told tale.
At the center of the story is Catherine Givings (Lauren Bloom), wife of the scientifically preoccupied Dr. Givings (Leif Norby) and a woman who is both intensely curious about what goes on behind the closed door of her husband’s treatment room (she keeps hearing strange sounds) and intensely distressed because she can’t get her milk to let down so she can feed her newborn child. Her curiosity leads her into untoward relationships with a couple of the patients: Sabrina Daldry (Foss Curtis), who is married to the genially insufferable Mr. Daldry (Karl Hanover), and Leo Irving (Mattew Kerrigan), a dreamy-eyed artist who is one of the rare male patients to benefit from the wonders of the electrical vibrator, albeit in a different anatomical zone. The little group is completed by Annie (Beth Thompson), Dr. Givens’ efficient nurse, who on occasions when the machine doesn’t seem to be sufficient to the task, expertly applies the old-fashioned manual-manipulation method of stress reduction to the patients; and by the nursemaid Elizabeth (Ashley Nicole Williams), who, a little disconcertingly, given the long history of stereotyping in American culture, is both the only black character in the play and the only one who is Wise to the Ways of Nature (she understands it’s about sex). It’s a good, well-balanced cast, sparked by Bloom’s nervous drive of curiosity and Curtis’s sly hint of humor. Norby, given the unenviable task of playing an eminent man of science who is in emotional matters pretty much an idiot, lets Dr. Givens be the butt of some jokes but also imbues him with a genuine dignity.
Profile’s In the Next Room is quite lovely to look at, with an ornate yet open set by Stephen Dobay and some ravishing period costumes by Sarah Gahagan. And, just because you almost never get to list a credit like this, here’s a credit like this: “Vibrators provided by Alley Repertory Theater in Boise, Idaho. www.alleyrep.org.” Alley, thanks for the buzz.
Profile Theatre’s In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play continues through June 28 on the Morrison Stage of the Artists Repertory Theatre complex. Ticket and schedule information are here.