Originally reviewed for GaySocialites.com.
While I enjoyed In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, I don’t think I’m its audience. For various reasons, I know a bit more than your typical theatergoer about feminism and the history of sexuality, so while Ruhl’s play revealed a few salient details I wasn’t aware of, I wasn’t as shocked or titillated as the rest of the audience seemed to be.
Set around 1880, a time when electricity was just beginning to be used in the home, In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, follows Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris) and his wife (Laura Benanti) and the good doctor’s experimental electrical therapy, essentially using what would become known as a vibrator to treat women (and some men) suffering from “hysteria”.
Much of the humor in the play derives from the typically Victorian failure of Dr. Givings — and everyone around him — to recognize that the effects of his devices are actually sexual, that the “paroxysms” they experience are actually orgasms. Once the “joke” of that has passed, Ruhl does indeed use this fact to pursue some interesting investigations into human psychology. She rambles as she does so, however, and In the Next Room feels too long by nearly an act.
I think Ruhl intended Benanti’s character to be the lens through which we see the story, and has made her guilelessly curious about all things. In doing so, however, she has made Mrs. Givings too unselfconscious; her husband finds her free of neuroses, but it’s not believable that a psychiatrist of that era would have found her mentally healthy.
Benanti does the character no favors, either, playing her very broadly, as though she was going for every laugh in sight (which is strange, given Benanti’s marvelously restrained performances in Nine and Gypsy). By contrast, Cerveris plays the doctor’s simultaneous curiosity and obliviousness with a light touch.
There are some interesting ideas and moments of great humor and lyricism in In the Next Room, but in the end it didn’t give me much of a charge, or prod me to much thought.
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