In the Next Room or the vibrator play

The fun in Sarah Ruhl's feminist period comedy is hardly mechanical.

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  • ELECTRIC COMPANY Dizzia, left, shows Stetson and Benanti how the vibrator works.

ELECTRIC COMPANY Dizzia, left, shows Stetson and Benanti how the vibrator works.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

William Blake laid it out pretty clearly in his 1793 poem “The Question Answer’d”: “What is it men in women do require?/The lineaments of Gratified Desire./What is it women do in men require?/The lineaments of Gratified Desire.” Howsoever you read lineaments—as either a real facial expression of contentment or merely its feigned form—what sticks is the basic truth that we want our partners (whatever their gender) to show outward signs of pleasure. So it comes as a shock that when the women in Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or the vibrator play orgasm, their moans and cries are regarded as alien, aberrant, nothing remotely erotic.

That’s because the ladies are not getting their jollies in bed, but on an operating table in the home office of Dr. Givings (Cerveris). And give he certainly does—specifically, “therapeutic electrical massages” to the genitals of nervous women diagnosed with hysteria. Armed with a vibrating implement powered by that miraculous new discovery, electricity, Givings induces a “paroxysm” to relieve congestive juices in the womb. In case you were wondering, this isn’t Ruhlian whimsy; such procedures were routine 120 years ago. Before Freud, before Kinsey, before Dr. Drew, science had barely tickled the surface, so to speak, of female sexuality.

Ruhl’s subject is rich with comic possibilities, many of which, I’m glad to report, she elegantly and thoughtfully teases out. More, she doesn’t just point at historical ignorance and cackle, but probes sympathetically, to portray a marriage warped by shame and secrecy, in which scientific ritual occludes common sense and instinct.

The dichotomies powering the play (science vs. nature, men vs. women) are neatly expressed in Annie Smart’s bisected set: on the left, Givings’s operating theater; on the right, a comfortable sitting room. The latter space is the province of Catherine (Gypsy’s Benanti), the good doctor’s bubbly, chatty wife, a mother who unfortunately cannot produce enough breast milk to feed her newborn. Despite worry about this lactic inadequacy (and her less-than-passionate marriage), Catherine remains undaunted, one of Ruhl’s habitually free-spirited, free-associating heroines. The character could grow tiresome, but Benanti imbues faux-naf Catherine with bright-eyed vivacity. When she hears the melancholy Mrs. Daldry (Maria Dizzia) behind her husband’s door, screaming in ecstasy from the treatment, the effect is both comic and poignant. On some level, Catherine intuits that her husband’s equipment has more than one application.

This premise could easily devolve into a silly sex farce or a strident feminist critique; in fact, Ruhl samples from both without becoming indebted to either. In a way, In the Next Room is unabashedly antiscience; Ruhl has noted in interviews that she’s not impressed by psychological realism or rationality in contemporary plays. In the battle between reason and wonder, she comes down firmly on the side of dreamy awe. By restricting her genre to aphorism-peppered 19th-century drawing-room comedy, Ruhl tempers her tendency toward twee whimsy and delivers a compelling yarn with engaging characters who evolve. And director Les Waters doesn’t gild the lily of Ruhl’s heightened but period-respectful dialogue, setting a comical but grounded tone.

It helps that the author peoples her play with lively, counterpointed characters, including a male hysteric painter (Chandler Williams) who receives his treatment per rectum; an African-American wet nurse (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) who becomes Catherine’s proxy shortly after her own child dies; and the aforementioned Mrs. Daldry, whom Dizzia renders as a dizzy yet pinched expert at repression. Wendy Rich Stetson turns in a smaller but touching performance as Givings’s nurse, Annie, a spinster with a buried same-sex inclination. Similar frustration besets dufferish Mr. Daldry (Thomas Jay Ryan), completing the circuit the play charts of dissatisfied people seeking fulfillment in the wrong places.

Although Catherine toys with the notion of escaping her sad bourgeois existence with the artist, the play comes down in favor of saving the marriage. Cerveris’s doctor, after all, is a kind man who truly wants to help women, but ignorance of their bodies and his own inhibitions limit him (the actor, with his affected delivery and chilly-bland demeanor, is usually tricky to cast but proves an ideal, even-tempered doc). When he and Benanti enter the winter garden and disrobe for the play’s final Edenic sequence, Ruhl achieves an unforced aura of hopeful wonder—for the future of both love and science.

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Lyceum Theatre. By Sarah Ruhl. Dir. Les Waters. With Laura Benanti, Michael Cerveris. 2hrs 20mins. One intermission.

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