In The Next Room, or The Vibrator Play

In+The+Next+Room%2C+or+The+Vibrator+Play

courtesy Roger Mastroianni

Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play” at the Cleveland Play House.

Joseph Verbovszky, Staff Reporter

Enter Mrs. Daldry. Her paltry, exhausted form limps into Dr. Givings’ office, weak, sick, and shrouded under a black mourning veil as she withers under rays of the table lamp. Miserable and terrified, she shrieks in terror at the doctor’s mention of an “operating theater,” henceforth referred to as “the next room.” When she leaves, she is all smiles; her cheeks are flushed with rosy color and her gait is strong and confident. It’s almost as if she is a completely different woman. After continued visits, Mrs. Daldry looks visibly healthier, happier, and fuller of life. What miracle treatment could Dr. Givings have devised to bring about such an astounding recovery? Like with most women diagnosed with hysteria, Dr. Givings relies on electrical “stimulation.” This causes a paroxysm which releases the excess “fluid” in the woman’s womb, thereby curing the symptoms. Today, we call it bringing a woman to orgasm.

This is the main focus of Sarah Ruhl’s Tony Award-nominated play “In the Next Room” which opened April 18 at the Cleveland Play House. The play itself is a brilliant and hilarious take on the social mores of 19th century America. This comes primarily from the tasteful way the subject matter is handled. While one might expect raunchy sex jokes and constant innuendo from a play about the invention of sex toys, this is hardly the case. Rather, the play presents the shocking professionalism of a 19th century American doctor who treats his work with dedication, devotion, and utter seriousness. Some of the funniest moments of the play come from watching Doctor Givings, pocket watch in hand, eyeing the minute hand while administering his “treatment” to the patient. “It never takes longer than three minutes,” he says. One really has to appreciate the talent of Jeremiah Wiggins in this role and wonder how he manages to keep a straight face during these “treatment” sessions. That goes to show that there really is nothing that cannot be well-acted on stage.

In a similar vein, the dialogue is spectacular and provides its own humorous contribution. The play has a substantial number of double meanings and innuendos (not all of which involve sex), many of which are delivered by Dr. Givings’ wife, Catherine. Lacking any semblance of a filter, she behaves much more like a child than a grown woman and her character highlights, like Ibsen’s Nora, a common trope regarding the position of women in 19th century America. But unlike Nora, don’t expect Catherine to storm off at the end to go find herself. Like most children, Catherine always speaks the truth; yet, through her seemingly innocent banter, one might catch a glimpse of some deeper concepts and have cause to wonder if some wisdom resides in this childishness. Nisi Sturgis does a wonderful job of portraying this ambiguity and makes Catherine much more than a dissatisfied housewife whose overly rational husband pays her little attention.

While the play may ostensibly be about the vibrator, it is also about intimacy. In the beginning, one could say that the characters do indeed have a physical problem, brought on by what are considered, by our standards, bizarre and prudish customs of late 19th century America. Yet, the vibrator does not treat the cause of the problem, but rather the symptoms. Even with the successful “treatments,” not all the characters are satisfied. Instead, a new question is posed at the end of this delightful and provocative play. Can a mechanical object really take the place of human intimacy?