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Lucy Komisar
"In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play" is a whimsical cartoon about curing bad sex

"In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play"
Written by Sarah Ruhl; Directed by Les Waters.
Lincoln Center Theater at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, New York City.
Opened November 19, 2009; Closes January 10, 2010
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar December 4, 2009.

"IN THE NEXT ROOM, OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY" -- Michael Ceveris as the doctor. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The conceit of this bizarre, quirky play could be dismissed as an absurd allegory except that it is based on true facts.

Start with men who don't have a clue about women's sexuality, add women who feel malaise, throw in a guy who's unhappy that the woman he cared for left him, and send them to a doctor with what today appears to be a very unusual prescription.

It's often comic, albeit, like the bad sex it skewers, it is curiously unsatisfying. It is a burlesque, where, under the direction of Les Waters, the characters are cartoons and orgasms are the punch lines of the play's one joke.

As the modern age arrived in the early 1880s with Thomas Edison's invention of a system for the generation and distribution of electricity, the refusal to acknowledge the nature of women's sexuality led apparently sympathetic physicians to solve their problem (generally called hysteria) by giving them orgasms with vibrators!

So everyone played the game that this was an advanced medical treatment, and the women – what did they think? Did they just lay back and enjoy it (without thinking of England) as the patient in Sarah Ruhl's play appears to do?

Maria Dizzia, Thomas Jay Ryan, as the patient and her husband,Wendy Rich
Stetson as the doctor's assistant, Michael Cerveris as the doctor, Photo by Joan Marcus.

The set is a Victorian house in "a prosperous spa town outside of New York City, perhaps Saratoga Springs," at the dawn of the age of electricity and after the Civil War, circa the 1880s. Events take place in the parlor and the doctor's consulting room, which is filled with bound medical books. Dr. Givings (an appropriately impassive Michael Cerveris) is a specialist in women's disorders.

Sexual problems are described obliquely, and Ruhl's dialogue is clever. Mr. Daldry (well-played by Thomas Jay Ryan as a rather stiff fellow), complains that his wife (Maria Dizzia) is sensitive to light and cold: "Her fingers do not work in the living room or any other room." But Dr. Givings seems to know what's wrong. His diagnosis is hysteria, and he recommends therapeutic electrical massage.

A side joke is the extensive dress and petticoat paraphernalia (costumes by David Zinn) that must be removed for each visit.

Maria Dizzia as the patient, Michael Ceveris as the doctor. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Mrs. Daldry lies on an examining bed, the doctor sticks a metal device under the sheet, and she has orgasmic convulsions—called "paroxysms." During a visit when the electricity blows, the doctor's assistant Annie (Wendy Rich Stetson) passively reaches under the sheet to try the "manual" method. The patient doesn't connect any of this to what happens in the dark with her husband, which she doesn't much like.

The doctor's wife, Mrs. Givings (Laura Benanti), is curious and, in a giggly intrigue of sisterhood with Dizzia, soon finds out what the treatment is all about. Dizzia and Benanti are delightful as the women, both utterly naïve, Dizzia fluttery and open to the experience and Benenti slightly ditzy. They both seem lonely. The back story of course is the failure of intimacy in marriage.

Chandler Williams the artist, Laura Benanti the doctor's wife. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The doctor also sees men. Leo Irving (Chandler Williams) is a young artist who's been jilted and hasn't been able to paint for a year. His treatment is hard to believe. He also has a pronounced theatrical speech which maybe is how an artist is supposed to talk.

It's also hard to believe the premise of the play that the doctor, who presumably studied human biology and must understand how and why this treatment works, really didn't know what he was doing. Maybe male bonding made it impossible for him to point out that his patient's unhappiness stemmed from her husband's failure as a lover.

Michael Cerveris and Laura Benanti, the doctor and his wife. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Then why is he is cold to his own wife? That seems connected to the fact that he doesn't pay attention to her in other ways, escaping to his club and leaving her lonely and alone whenever he fancies. He even asks her to hide when a patient arrives, and she squats behind the couch. We feel her humiliation.

Quincy Tyler Bernstine as the wet-nurse, Laura Benanti as the doctor's wife, Photo by Joan Marcus.

To throw in more of the tenor of the times, there are multiple prejudices. Speaking about the wet nurse that his wife requires, the doctor says, "You'd rather have a Negro Protestant than an Irish Catholic, wouldn't you?"

They hire Elizabeth (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), who is the only one in the group who seems to understand that the purpose of sex is pleasure for both parties.

This play is often funny, though in spite of the subject, it is not erotic. In fact, it's particularly asexual. After all, eroticism has to do with two people turned on by each other, not by a doctor holding a metal device. It's only at the very end that Ruhl suggests how that can work, along with feminist direction that shows a male actor nude instead of a female. But that realism seems to belong to another play.


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