Whenever I see people clad in stuffy, period costumes, I expect to see one of two scenarios: either one populated by neurotic characters with repression leaking out of their ears or one of those Oscar Wilde-esque works filled with irreverence towards morals and pun-ishing (sorry!) dialogue. The Dramat’s production of “In the Next Room or the vibrator play” by Sarah Ruhl is an entertaining and, somehow, emotionally sincere combination of both, although it comes across as too light.
Dr. Givings (Tim Creavin ’15) is a New England doctor who specializes in treating female hysteria. His primary tool? A pre-primitive, electrical-box-powered vibrator. Enter Mr. Daldry (Kyle Yoder ’15) and his wife Elizabeth (Marina Horiates ’15), whose hysteria has left her listless. Once Elizabeth experiences the electrical device for the first time, she’s more than eager to return for more treatments. All the while, the good doctor’s own wife, Catherine Givings (Calista Small ’14), feels overwhelmed by marriage and motherhood and also wishes to use the machine. Things get complicated when a grief-stricken wet nurse (Zina Ellis ’15) and a flamboyant artist (Paul Hinkes ’15) suffering from rare male hysteria come to join the Givings household.
The use of the vibrator never fails to elicit giggles after its early introduction. Sometimes, Ruhl’s playwriting overuses the machine as a cheap joke, but, more often than not, it becomes the device which slowly peels back 19th-century notions of decency in order to reveal the marital discord and sexual repression that threaten the well-being of almost everyone in this play. At the same time, it isn’t some magic stick that makes everyone’s problems go away. It doesn’t banish Catherine’s feelings of isolation or miraculously make her more appealing to her husband. And it doesn’t make Sabrina any more passionate towards her own much older, boorish husband. But the characters slowly learn to look past what society has concealed.
Concealment is a recurring theme in this play, from dialogue filled with double entendres and resentment just bubbling below the surface to the genteel yet restrictive set design and costumes. Frames and color schemes divide the set into public and private worlds, with the public consisting of the the soft, flowing colors of the parlor and the private — the space where sex is marginally more explicit — comprising the grayish walls and white sheets of the clinic. But it’s hard for anything to remain hidden in this play. The contrast between what happens in the next room and in the living room provides not only humor but also emotionally charged moments.
The cast’s acting adeptly melds stuffy prudishness with self-awareness about the play’s many dirty jokes. Considering the subject matter and the fact that three of the actors — Small, Horiates and Catherine Shaw ’16, who plays the midwife, Annie — appeared in the 2013 production of “The Vagina Monologues,” I felt like I was watching the prequel to that play. Not really; this production possesses a little more diversity thanks to one cast member of color (Ellis), less man-bashing and the ability to maintain the audiences’ attention well after the intermission.
At first glance, Small’s character seems like a bubblegum-chewing airhead who somehow time-travelled two centuries into the past. Her talkative nature always lands her in the most socially awkward situations. She’s easy to laugh at, but Small also reveals to us a woman suffocated by 19th century gender norms. It’s a tricky balance of eccentricity and of frustration, but it works. Hinke’s role as Leo Irving also stands out in for cartoonish nature, if not its depth: he’s part-ladies’ man, part-dandy and all-nut-job, with odd vocal inflections that make even the most bland sentence sound like a comedic punch-line. The rest of the characters — even Dr. Givings — are too briefly sketched to really dwell upon. While the second act definitely ups the moody drama of the play, some of the jokes should have been pushed aside for the sake of character development, especially considering the severe turns in the plot in the latter half.
More dramatic room would also have deepened the impact of the show’s ending. That final scene, while appearing to be a grand answer to the play’s overall problems with communication and intimacy, leaves audiences too caught up with its dizzying freedom and its impressive beauty to realize that it is actually an incomplete conclusion to almost everyone’s stories.
“The room next door or the vibrator play” doesn’t always perfectly marry comedy with drama — in fact, the laughter sticks to memory much better — but as it is, it’s a play that deserves admiration for its efforts to humanize those dour Victorian-age humans and to push for honesty in intimacy.