In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), Philadelphia


in_the_next_room_philly_3-11
From left, Krista Apple, Kate Czajkowski, and Jeremiah Wiggins in the Wilma Theater production of
“In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)”
Photo by Jim Roese


In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)

By Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Blanka Zizka
Wilma Theater, Philadelphia
March 2-April 3, 2011

“In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play,”Sarah Ruhl’sTony-nominated play, makes a return engagement to the Wilma Theater, attracting women in-the-know and a cross-section of males from 16 to 60 for some bawdy intellectual stimulation,f not sex tips. “Room” is set in the 1880s when Edison’s electric lights were illuminating everything, but everyone stayed decidedly dim about sexuality.

On his examining table, Dr. Givings is testing a new device that could lend more than a hand to repressed ladies (and at least one man) in relieving “hysteria.” Givings isn’t the least bit distracted by the implications of his therapy, just the magic results. Annie, his empathetic nurse, in fact knows much more about the psychosexual components of what Givings is really toying with.

The doc’s wife, Catherine, languishes in the parlor, with mounting frustration, watching her husband cure other people’s lives but ignore his own. They are new parents, and Catherine is certain she is a bad mother because she cannot nurse her child. Elizabeth, an African American woman, has just lost her newborn to cholera, so she agrees to be wet nurse to Catherine’s baby.

Givings is busy with Sabrina Daldry, who is just drying up with hysteria. She looks vampiric and she can no longer play the piano, but after one treatment she schedules sessions every day to keep that spring in her step. Mr. Daldry couldn’t be more pleased, even though the mechanics of their sex life, Sabrina reveals, remains a sterile mission.

All of this leads to some shocking dialogue—not about sex but more about the characters’ ignorance about sex in general and the female body in particular. Ruhl unlaces this buttoned-up world in unexpected ways, but it turns into a tug between the ambitious subject matter and what starts to play out like a situation comedy. When Catherine and Mrs. Daldry break into the examining room and experiment, they look like Lucy and Ethel in bustled florals.

Another patient, Leo Irving, a painter, arrives prostrate over the his brief affair with a woman, seeking Givings treatment—in this case, a male vibrating probe he has devised. Ruhl can’t resist visual vaudeville here.

Things eventually get very clammy with many pregnant pauses, doorbells going off or husbands walking in. The heady dialogue slips into burlesque lines and double entendre. Director Blanka Zizka (see video interview, below) keeps things stylized in the first act, but they play in the second with diminishing climaxes. Despite the clutter, Ruhl keeps getting salient points in about relationships, and the cast hangs in (with mixed results).

Kate Czajkowski keeps Sabrina in a delicate balance between melancholic and reserved ecstasy. Jeremiah Wiggins is quietly comic as Givings, although he is too benign at points. Luigi Sottile, playing a Wildean straight dandy, is inventive and resists playing the literal butt of the jokes. Mairin Lee gives Catherine a frustrated naturalness that is very appealing, but isn’t so convincing as the character gets to reluctant truths. Opal Alladin powerfully conveys the nurse’s conflicting emotions as wet-nurse and Krista Apple as Annie brings out the Chekov in Ruhl with an unforgettable performance.

Great period clothes (and detailed underclothes) by Oana Botez Ban, who designs for dance and knows how to construct period costumes with life. Alexis Distler’s vibrant set design has seating in front of and behind like a medical amphitheater that looks over multiple rooms plush with delicate hanging light fixtures and fine detail with the doc’s equipment and furniture. The sound design by Chris Colucci features songs, set to Emily Dickinson poems that float in like breezes.

Philadelphia, PA
Lewis Whittington writes about the performing and film arts for many publications. He is a renegade dance, theater and opera queen, a jazz-head and a civil activist.