The Jungle Theater has just opened Sarah Ruhl’s Tony-nominated play, “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play.” It’s created quite a buzz, and with good reason. It’s a thoroughly satisfying experience, if I may say, and certainly put the pink in my cheeks!
Ruhl has taken an oddity of the Victorian Era and turned it into a most engaging examination of the Victorian’s inhibiting conventions about our physical selves. True. But more than that, the play is about how real intimacy is the heartbeat of a meaningful relationship.
In an 1880’s spa town outside of New York City, Dr. Givings treats women (mostly) for a malady termed “hysteria.” (It’s useful to know that this word comes from the Greek word for uterus.) Dr. Givings is enthralled with the wonders of electricity and enjoys a lively practice, presumably due to his invention, the electrical vibrator. The curious thing is (given that, historically speaking, people haven’t always been so laughably naïve) that this treatment had no sexual—or even sensual—connection for the Victorians. Women benefited from the “treatment,” but not for the reasons supposed. The doctor even sees a rare case of hysteria in a man—“but he is an artist,” the doctor explains, who he also treats (just guess how) with the same clinical and scientific approach.
Which is why it’s a funny play. It would all seem too ridiculous, but for the fact that it’s, essentially, true.
This production has just the right balance in Ruhl’s characters to fashion both a touching story (sorry) and great entertainment. “Life as art” versus “life as science” is neatly illustrated by juxtaposing Dr. Givings (played convincingly by John Middleton) and Ryan Underbakke’s character, the artist, Leo Irving. Practicality in the rakish husband, Mr. Daldry (played with gusto by Bradley Greenwald) is balanced by Catherine Giving’s passion. Toss in Annie the nurse (Annie Enneking is perfect in this role), and Elizabeth, the wet nurse (Austene Van is just lovely), and multiple angles are served.
The story, in any case, belongs to the doctor’s wife, Catherine, absolutely finessed by Christina Baldwin. At home with this delightfully drawn character, we discover with Catherine what she’s been missing, and cheer as she goes after it with wonderful abandon.
With the action of the play cloistered in two rooms of the doctor’s house, excuses were required for Catherine to be constantly answering the door. The device of a character forgetting a hat, gloves or scarf became a bit redundant, but the awkward entrances they create must occur to drive the plot forward. It is a comedy, and the farcical notes also kept the earthy subject matter light.
Catherine is not supposed to meet her husband’s patients, but she’s bored, restless, curious and lonely, and quickly befriends everyone who rings the doorbell, including Daldry’s “hysterical” wife, Sabrina, played with skillful restraint by Emily Gunyou Halaas. The sensitive reveal for Sabrina’s general malaise is such an exquisite high point, it was almost an ending. Kudos, as well to Enneking for that.
In fact, there were more loose ends tied up after that point than was necessary: a few extra pages of telling, not showing. I suppose we had to get from Annie and Sabrina on the piano bench to the real ending somehow, but all that we cared about at that point was for Catherine to triumph – and she most certainly does. The final tableau is just magical.
The set, designed by the Jungle’s artistic director, Bain Boehlke, was a beautifully draped and cushioned 19th-century parlor in inviting colors, adjacent to the doctor’s unfussy “operating theater.” Costumes were just exquisite, with Baldwin and Halaas in bustles, corsets, and hats perched on the edge of piled-high hair. Who would have thought a play about vibrators could be so proper?
“In the Next Room” runs through December 16. Recommended!