Subscribe Now »

Special Holiday Deal

Give the Gift of the

Give one person a magazine subscription for $29.95, and get each additional subscription for just $19.95.

Newsletters

Get Where+When delivered to your inbox every Monday and Thursday.

Theater Review: In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play
Between men and women, the truth is electric By Sophie Gilbert
Comments () | Published November 5, 2010

***½ stars

It’s too easy to see Sarah Ruhl’s newest play, In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, as just an opportunity to snigger—it’s not every day that sex toys play such a significant role on the Washington stage. But amid the bawdy jokes and the double entendres is a brilliant, funny, tragic play that raises profound questions about male-female relationships, all viewed through the prism of buttoned-up Victorian sexual dysfunction. Buoyed by a fearless, spirited cast, Aaron Posner’s production at Woolly Mammoth Theatre is almost as stimulating as the electrical currents it draws so much humor from.

The scene is set in a late 19th century home, where Dr. Givings (Eric Hissom) has utilized technological developments in electricity to create a revolutionary new treatment for women burdened by “hysteria.” His operating theater is separated from his living room by only a wall, leaving his curious and lonely wife, Mrs. Givings (Katie DeBuys) to wonder what exactly could be going on in the next room.

Her loving but distracted husband makes every effort to shoo her into the nursery with their newborn daughter when his patients come calling, but Mrs. Givings has a knack for lousy timing (and tactlessness), meaning that her house is veritable frenzy of comings (no pun intended) and goings. Nor is her husband inclined to share his scientific discoveries with her, telling her grandly, “Leave me my dry boring science, and I will leave you the rest of the world.”

The problem is that the sounds intermittently emerging from the next room are neither dry or boring, and they make the “rest of the world” seem a little less exciting. Mrs. Daldry (Kimberly Gilbert), a patient of Dr. Givings’s who suffers so terribly from nerves that she has to wear a veil and can no longer play the piano, emerges from his treatment with rosy cheeks and a newfound zest for life (during the course of the play, her outfits, designed by Helen Huang, change from blacks and grays to vivid purple, reflecting the rebirth of her passion).

Dr. Givings even has a male patient—“Hysteria is very rare in a man. But then again, he’s an artist,” Dr. Givings tells his sturdy assistant, Annie—Leo Irving (Cody Nickell), who serves both as a tormented, ardent foil to Dr. Givings and a momentary love interest for the doctor’s wife. And as Mrs. Givings sees more and more transformation emerging from her husband’s office, she grows only more frustrated with the confines of her respectable and tedious life, while deeply troubled by the fact that she can’t produce enough milk to feed her baby and has to hire a wet nurse to take her place.

Ruhl, who explored religion and power in Passion Play and mortality in Dead Man’s Cell Phone, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for In the Next Room, and rightly so—her meditations on sexual mores and societal oppression have a light enough touch to be thoughtful and raucously funny. But her forte within this play seems to be making us wonder how human beings managed to survive so long while being so unbelievably clueless. Only the Victorians could separate a “paroxysm” from sex and study it purely as a clinical phenomenon. Only a man could wonder why his wife is distressed by the fact that another woman (Elizabeth, played gracefully by Jessica Frances Dukes) is better able to take care of their child than she is.

And only a woman (Elizabeth again) could point out gently to two housewives that the new feelings they’re encountering are possibly something they could get from their husbands, not simply a newfangled electrical device—and have the response be snorts of laughter. In the Next Room may have vibrators as a plot device, but the truths the devices set in motion are far from frivolous.

Through October 3. Click here for tickets ($40 to $55).

Subscribe to Washingtonian
Follow Washingtonian on Twitter
 

More>> After Hours Blog | Arts & Events | Happy Hour Finder | Calendar of Events

Categories:

Nightlife Theater Theater Review
Subscribe to Washingtonian

Discuss this story

Feel free to leave a comment or ask a question. The Washingtonian reserves the right to remove or edit content once posted.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Posted at 08:21 AM/ET, 11/05/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Blogs