In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play playwright Sarah Ruhl probably never intended Dr. Givings' frustrated pronouncement, "I'm going to the club," to be a laugh line. But isolated snickers broke out all over Circuit Playhouse as actor Josh Quinn closed the door on Andrea Rouch, the actress playing his long-suffering wife Catherine, and exited stage left, in the general direction of TheatreWorks. That's where The Club — a musical feminist satire about men's social clubs at the turn of the 20th century — is currently enjoying a lively revival. But was this clever bit of meta-humor intentional?
In the Next Room director Dave Landis pleads innocence and says that Playhouse on the Square's executive producer Jackie Nichols may have planned for things to work out that way, but if so, he didn't bother to tell anybody.
Ruhl's play is set in January 1903, in the weeks following Thomas Edison's public electrocution of Topsy, an abused circus elephant that killed three men while fleeing from her trainer.
Temporally speaking, In the Next Room and The Club couldn't be more perfectly matched, and a season programmer would be hard-pressed to find a pair of shows whose themes dovetail more perfectly than these quirky curiosities about sex, race, and class at the dawn of the electrical age.
In the Next Room borrows heavily (but not heavy-handedly) from The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story about a woman who is diagnosed by her physician husband as suffering from hysteria and subsequently confined to an upstairs bedroom. Instead of following in Gilman's footsteps and developing In the Next Room as a gothic horror story with Freudian implications, Ruhl has turned the tables and written a sex farce.
Dr. Givings specializes in "therapeutic electric massage" and has invented a vibrator that looks like a cross between a hair dryer and a death ray, designed to create "paroxysms" in female patients who suffer from nervousness and hysteria. In more direct terms, he gets them off. And they like it.
"Sometimes they [other women] even call on God," Givings' stone-faced assistant Annie explains to Sabrina Daldry, a patient who worries that she may have had an inappropriate response to the treatment.
Catherine Givings is a profoundly lonely and annoyingly chatty woman with a bohemian streak. She feels inadequate because her husband has abandoned her for his work and because her breast milk is thin and gray and can't satisfy the couple's newborn baby. She listens at the locked door of her husband's office — a room to which she'll eventually gain access (METAPHOR ALERT) with a borrowed hat pin — and marvels at the moaning she hears. And she wonders just what it is that keeps her husband's rosy-cheeked customers coming back for more. Even so, she grows to resent the bond that forms between her baby and Elizabeth, the African-American housekeeper she hired as a wet nurse.
Things become even more classically farcical in the second act with the introduction of Leo Irving a passionate, liberally minded painter who's been away studying art in Europe. Leo became depressed after a failed romance but is getting better thanks to Givings' special "Chattanooga-style" vibrator for men which looks like a modified jigsaw designed to stimulate the prostate gland.
"Hysteria is very rare in a man, but then again, he [Leo] is an artist," the doctor explains.
As is often the case with farces, opportunities for indiscretions arise. Only this time around that's where the screwball comedy ends. Faces are slapped, passes are intercepted, and overtures are painfully silenced on the way to messier, and ultimately more satisfying, conclusions.
At times Ruhl's very funny, uniquely moving play feels like an inspired first draft. The Elizabeth character, for example, is never developed beyond the classic racial stereotype of a wise and trusted mammy who is moral but not so civilized that she doesn't know sex is fun.
For all of its vintage trappings, In the Next Room is very much a play for the Twitter generation. It's less about the history of sex than it is about isolation, communication, and the rise of fascinating new technologies that seem to replace certain physically gratifying aspects of human interaction without replicating it.
Through February 5th