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Tuesday, 01 December 2009 00:33

Broadway Review: In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play

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Michael Cerveris in In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play
Michael Cerveris in In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play
Photo: Joan Marcus

Sara Ruhl’s engaging new play In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play takes place in the sexually-repressed Victorian 1880s before it was generally accepted that women could and should enjoy sex as much as men.  Women were expected to tolerate it.  At the same time, as a means of controlling hysteria in women (and sometimes men) doctors would use a vibrator or even a manual method of inducing an orgasm or paroxysm to alleviate symptoms.    

According to the author’s notes, while the story-line is fictitious, there are factual statements made in the play that are based upon primary historical sources.  The play is a drama with enough comedic moments to move the play fleetly along.  Les Waters does a fine job in his Lincoln Center Theater directorial debut.  Perhaps it’s his English roots that make the piece at times appear like a British farce, a bit of mugging, lots of people coming and going through doors.

Michael Cerveris plays Dr. Givings who spends his days providing release  for hysterical women using the first vibrators, all the while not even realizing his own wife is suffering with her own version of hysteria.  These symptoms come about after giving birth to a baby for whom she is not providing sufficient breast-milk.  Her manifestations of hysteria include blurting out inappropriate remarks to the doctor’s patients as they come and go and even befriending one long enough to break into the doctor’s office for a moment of mutual satisfaction with his machine.  Laura Benanti (a Tony Award winner for Gypsy last season) plays Mrs. Givings whose attempt to make small-talk with the patients routinely gets her into trouble when she says something that most likely should not be said in the polite society of 1880.

Mrs. Daldry is finely played by Maria Dizzia as she transitions back and forth between catatonic state and sheer giddiness.  Her husband, played by Thomas Jay Ryan is every bit the man of the time, prim and proper and ever so glad the doctor has a solution to his wife’s maladies.

There is a momentary lesbian sub-text to the play between Annie, quietly evoked by Wendy Rich Stetson and Mrs. Daldry.   The topic of mid-wives and wet nurses is also explored.  Quincy Tyler Bernstine plays the Daldry’s domestic help.  Mr. Daldry quickly offers her up to Dr. & Mrs. Givings as a possible wet nurse for their ever thinning baby as she has just lost her own baby.  Ms. Bernstine’s performance is simple and honest and we feel her pain as she describes the loss of her baby boy. 
When Mrs. Givings and Mrs. Daldry ask Elizabeth to help them define what they experienced together using the doctors machine, her response is “sound like sensations that women might have when they are having relations with their husbands.”  The women’s response of guffaws and protestations of “good heavens, no” and “No!  Good God” speak volumes about the lack of information about “the joy of sex” in the latter part of the 19th century.

Quincy Tyler Bernstine (L) and Laura Benanti in In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play
Photo: Joan Marcus

Chandler Williams plays the doctor’s dashing male patient who loses his ability to paint when left by a woman.  He is a regular bon vi von and man of the world yet he is brought to his knees by his loss and apparently a lack of stimulation to his prostate.  This is quickly alleviated by the doctor’s use of the “Chattanooga vibrator” for men (it really existed.)

The play speaks to the limited options and expectations of women prior to 1920 or so.  To men they were delicate things that could break at any moment and could not be expected to understand the difference between alternating current and direct current (Thomas Edison’s harnessing of electricity is another theme throughout the play).

The Victorian home interior designed by Annie Smart is beautifully appointed and the exterior scene at the end of the play, in consort with lighting designer Russell Champa sparkles.  The period costumes designed by David Zinn, while being beautiful also represent the severe strictures of women as we watch them continually get in and out of corsets and dresses with too many buttons, most of which can’t be reached. 

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this play, despite its titillating name, is the complete lack of eroticism in any of the doctor’s methodologies.  Of all the strides made by women over the course of the last 120-years, being able to actively participate in and enjoy sex may be one of the most important or at least one of the most enjoyable.  You’ve come a long way baby.

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Read full production credits at the Internet Broadway Database

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Last modified on Sunday, 13 December 2009 18:17