In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)
What can you say about “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)” the latest play by Sarah Ruhl, now at the Woolly Mammoth Theater?
Well, let’s try “aaarrrg”, “yiiiii” “ooohhhhh”, “a – a — a — o”, or “oooohmygddd” with lots of !!!!!!!!.
Can’t be sure that we’re exactly there, but you are going to hear female and male characters doing symphonic variations loudly on the human soul, heart and other body parts straining for release, with the assistance of an apparently ancient but very effective prop if you go to “In the Next Room”. And you’re likely to feel almost as good as the aforementioned characters do, even without a vibrator.
You may even think that you know where this play is going. Silly you: this is a Ruhl play, and the rule with Ruhl is that you’re going to get ambushed at every turn with reveries, lyrical side trips, and unexpected behavior by almost all of the characters. Mind you, you do end up where you might wish to have things end up, but the illustration of the climax — all right, conclusion—of the play is a delicious surprise, in the way an unexpected and perfect gift is.
With Ruhl, you also get a lot to mull over; it’s always almost as if she’s thought through the implication, past, present and future, of every situation and line. Ruhl gets context. This is a play that takes place near the end of the 1900’s, when electricity has just been invented and marketed by Thomas Edison as the harbinger of a new age.
We’re in Northeast America somewhere, and Dr. Givings has electricity in his house, which fuels lamps and a dandy little device which he’s more or less invented. The good doctor uses this device — a primitive vibrator — on patients (mostly women) suffering from hysteria, a common malady in the Victorian age. With these corseted women and their sexual feelings, this is done to the point where they must have had trouble breathing.
Mrs. Givings, a creative chatterbox whose emotional and physical needs haven’t come close to being met by her husband, has had a baby but can’t supply it with sufficient milk. The doctor is busy with patients like Mrs. Daldry, suffering painfully from the effects of too much light. She’s a bundle of nerves accompanied by her husband, a gruff, controlled man with an almost immediate eye for Mrs. Givings. Away, Mrs. Daldry goes into the next room, where Dr. Givings applies his, um, mechanism with the assistance of the implacable Nurse Annie.
Sure enough, wonders occur after the first application, and even her rigid husband notices that her cheeks have attained a rosy tone, one he has never seen before. The implications of all this are lost on the good doctor himself, who doesn’t know he’s absented himself from his wife or that he’s giving his patients releases and pleasure, as opposed to eliciting a cure. “I ‘m a scientist and a doctor,” he says. “I’m doing good. My patients have to be sick for me to apply the cure.”
Other things go on in the next room and in the living room, where the new electric lights flicker on and off like fireflies. Mrs. Givings and her husband have decided to hire a wet-nurse for the baby, a black woman whose last child died soon after birth. The artist Leo Irving shows a walking mood swing and personification of the artist who suffers for his art so openly, you want to slap him or seduce him. Mrs. Givings falls a little for the wild-eyed artist. Mrs. Givings insists that her husband apply the vibrator to her. “I have made a mistake,” he moans, for the first time behaving as if he’s paying attention. “This is not for healthy women.” Oh, but it is, it is.
In some ways the plot is thick and complicated; it seems often like a really smart soap opera. But its real subjects are release, freedom, and yes, love, which are the guardian angels that hover above this play constantly.
Over the course of the play — which is often inordinately and hilariously funny in a discomfiting way — you can see the future, and you can see how men and women are human beings of gender almost irredeemably separated by a common language, to paraphrase Shaw.
Ruhl is of course almost something of a supernova among new playwrights — and she’s found a special home at Woolly Mammoth, where her remarkable “The Clean House” was produced five years ago. This play is her most accessible, which is a good thing by my thinking.
At Woolly, they’ve assembled a terrific cast. None are better than Katie DeBuys as the hungry, seeking, bewitching and wanting to be bewitched Mrs. Givings, around whom everything swirls like a hurricane. She’s sharp, quick, touched to the quick, quirky, seductive, eager, angry, and totally worthy. Kimberly Gilbert as the game Mrs. Daldry adds another touching comedic role to her Woolly repertoire. It’s sometimes a mystery how Gilbert does it — she seems the best kind of actress, performing as if she doesn’t realize she’s in a play.
Director Aaron Posner, with the critical help of set designer Daniel Conway and costume designer Helen Q. Huang, has created a world for the play to function in. Physically, it moves as fast as the words and recreates a lost world or rather reclaims it for our own times.
Go see — and hear — what goes on “In the Next Room.” You’ll be enriched.
"In the Next Room" runs through Sept. 19.