In the Next Room or the vibrator play
By Sarah Ruhl
Berkeley Rep, world premiere
January 30-March 15, 2009
Directed by Les Waters
Maria Dizzia & Hanna Cabell. Photo: kevinberne.com.
Sarah Ruhl knows a good vibration when she feels it. “In the Next Room or the vibrator play” is an examination of the disconnect between physical pleasure and the realities of Victorian marriage as well as a demonstration of the new-found wonders of electricity and, most of all, a story of love. Love -- between husband and wife, mother and child, women and men and women and women -- are at the heart of this clever, hilarious and ultimately touching new play.
Having its world premiere at Berkeley Rep, “Next Room” is directed by Les Waters, who also helmed the Berkeley Rep premiere of Ruhl’s blockbuster “Eurydice.” He has assembled a pitch-perfect cast of performers. Hannah Cabell plays Catherine Givings, a proper Victorian-era wife and new mother who is not at all sure she is cut out for the job. “I am a woman two-thirds done,” she muses. Catherine is dying to know what goes on in the next room (of the title) where her strait-laced husband, Dr. Givings (Paul Niebanck) administers electric vibrator treatments, the newest thing in medical technology, to women diagnosed as “hysterical.” The physician’s face, stony and staring straight ahead, is a recurring sight gag as he efficiently reaches under those layers of Victorian petticoats (costumes by David Zinn) to administer his cure.
And it works, as patient Sabrina Daldry (Maria Dizzia) can attest. In fact, Sabrina can’t get enough of it. Especially when it is manually augmented by the kind, lonely Annie, Dr. Givings’ nurse (Stacy Ross). Meanwhile, her husband (John Leonard Thompson) is busy falling in love with the doctor’s wife. And she, in turn, stimulated by the groans and cries emanating from the next room to try the treatment herself, is taken with a young painter (Joaquin Torres), just in from Europe and in need of the doctor’s not-so-tender ministrations. (He does men too). Meanwhile, none of them have a clue as to what is really going on. Except for Elizabeth (a luminous Melle Powers), the Givings’ African American wet-nurse, who, in response to her employer’s eager questioning, blushingly confesses to having experienced similar sensations to those described by the Mesdames Daldry and Givings when she “has relations” with her husband. “But not every time,” she hastens to add.
All of this is very funny – and a little scary when you consider that this therapy actually was very much in vogue at the end of the 19th Century when the newly-harnessed marvel of electricity became commonly available. (A small exhibit of antique vibrators is on display in the theater lobby). As the Givings’ doorbell keeps ringing and people go in and out of “the next room” it takes on the tinge of French farce. Then, somewhere in Act Two seriousness creeps in at the edges.
Mrs. Givings, unable to feed her baby daughter, becomes jealous of Elizabeth and her bond with the child. Bored with her uselessness, she resents her husband’s patronizing air. She fights off the attentions of Mr. Daldry and pursues the artist, who has inexplicably fallen in love with the wet-nurse. She tries to seduce her husband who – in the manner of Victorian husbands – stomps away to his club. “You prefer passion over trust? My god woman, we are married!” And then, in the midst of all these complications, Ruhl turns on the magic that so enchanted audiences in “Eurydice.” Annie Smart’s proper Victorian living room opens up, nature rushes in and the Givings’ relationship takes a drastic turn. What seemed like a sex comedy turns out to be a love story after all. A perfect Valentine.