Sarah Ruhl on "In the Next Room or the vibrator play"

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Productions at Playwrights Horizons and Lincoln Center Theater. Finalist for the Pulitzer. A MacArthur “genius” grant. Sarah Ruhl, best known for her serio-comedies The Clean House and Dead Man’s Cell Phone, has enjoyed a level of success that most playwrights dare not even dream of. This is fitting, considering the surreal nature of her work, in which dogs mourn, rocks cry and people take jaunts to the afterlife. This season she marks another milestone with her Broadway debut, the Berkeley Rep import In the Next Room (or the vibrator play). Inspired by historical evidence of outrageous experimental treatments at the dawn of the age of electricity, the play concerns a 19th-century doctor (Michael Cerveris) whose intimate work on depressed women affects his relationship with his wife (Laura Benanti).

Broadway isn’t known as the go-to place for serious theater these days. Do you worry that it’s the wrong place for your work?
I certainly never thought I would be on Broadway. The excesses of commercialism that can be associated with Broadway are scary to me in terms of making a piece of art, but in this case Lincoln Center is producing, and I totally trust them. It is the most unpretentious, supportive, methodical place. I feel very protected there; their opinion of me does not rest entirely on one production and how it’s received.

Will the production be significantly different from its California incarnation?
We’re changing some of the design elements, although all the designers are staying with the show, which I’m really happy about. We couldn’t keep all the actors, but [with Laura Benanti and Michael Cerveris] coming in, I can’t complain. Laura has a really unmanufactured innocent quality, which I just love. The innocence that’s required for the sexuality is really hard to stumble on in New York [Laughs] or just in this century, anywhere.

How involved will you be in rehearsals? Do you anticipate any rewrites?
I’m usually pretty involved. It’s actually my first time coming to New York when I haven’t done two productions ahead of time. There’s just one this time, so I’ve got my work cut out for me. I think I’ll be tweaking and fine-tuning, which I always think of as massive rewrites. I change a semicolon and I say, “Look, I did a big rewrite today!” I obsess over the minuscule.

You’re known for writing otherworldly, fantastical plays, but most critics deemed In the Next Room fairly naturalistic. Do you agree?
I’ve been compelled to be less naturalistic because I’m not interested in the way people talk in the contemporary world. I find it boring and not emotionally forthcoming. So I began writing plays set in other times, and whenever I have a play that’s not set in the present, I feel linguistic permission. So I think this play is deceptive. It seems more naturalistic in that there’s one set, we don’t go to the afterlife or some strange metaphysical place; it all takes place on Earth in two rooms. The subject matter is so challenging—you know, orgasms, vibrators—that I wanted the form to be stable. But I wouldn’t say that the way people talk in this play is particularly naturalistic.

Do you consider the play a period piece commenting on Victorian sexual mores, or does it have relevance today?
I think it’s actually—and this sounds so pretentious—ontologically impossible to write about the past and not write about the present, because I’m in the present, so I’m always commenting from a distance. Even if I set out to write a play purely about the 19th century, I’m actually writing about myself living in New York in this moment in time. In a way, I feel like sexuality’s been flipped: In the past, they compartmentalized and were so repressed, but today pornography has taken over the language of our sex lives and made it so public that it actually splits our bodies off from our emotions. We have no privacy. Selling jeans is pornography, Sarah Palin’s pornography, everything’s pornographic, so what does that do to our intimate private lives?

In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) begins previews Oct 22.

See all of our Broadway fall preview

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