Follow by Email

Monday, December 7, 2009

In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play (Lyceum Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

Victorian sexuality, women’s identity, and the disconnect between men and women are among the themes of “In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play,” Sarah Ruhl’s expert blending of social commentary and humor.

It is 1880, and Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris) is a proper doctor ministering to women suffering from hysteria by administering therapeutic electrical massage – thanks to the discoveries of Thomas Edison whose name is invoked more than once – with the eponymous vibrator, as indeed was actually done at the time.

As we observe first hand with the tremulous Mrs. Daldry (Maria Dizzia), the nervous symptoms of sensitivity to light and sound vanish miraculously once Dr. Givings has administered the treatment, and the patient leaves strangely relaxed.

But upstanding Dr. Givings fails to realize that his wife, a delightful chatterbox (played with likable zest by Laura Benanti) is in need of treatment, too, though she’s kept in the dark about what it is exactly that her husband does with his patients behind the locked door. Her irrepressible curiosity about the treatment mounts as the play progresses.

She’s just given birth to a baby girl, and worries that she has no milk. Her loving husband, paradoxically distant and inhibited despite his profession, is clearly not satisfying her, and she is as much an hysteric as Mrs. Daldry. She gets her release by bracing walks in the rain and snow, sans umbrella.

She comes to enjoy the company of Mr. Daldry (Thomas Jay Ryan) and his wife with whom she chats amiably in the sitting room, blurring the boundaries between their professional relationship with her husband and the domestic world just beyond the door of his operating theater.

Dr. Givings declares their new baby needs a wet nurse, and Mr. Daldry helpfully suggests their own housekeeper, Elizabeth (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) who has, in fact, just lost a child and has the requisite milk. Mrs. Givings quickly overcomes her qualms about engaging a colored woman.

In the second act, Dr. Givings is visited by a male patient (Chandler Williams in a flamboyantly enjoyable turn), an artist who has returned from Italy his own form of “hysteria" after an unhappy affair. The sexually neglected Mrs. Givings is smitten with the charismatic stranger, though he is more interested in painting Elizabeth and the baby as a modern-day Madonna and Child.

Throughout all this, Ruhl never descends to the smutty or vulgar, and her play has an all-pervading sweetness and charm. She is careful that we realize Dr. Givings ministrations are strictly professional. His female assistant Annie (Wendy Rich Stetson) insures propriety, though Annie eventually reveals more complexity than her no-nonsense manner at first suggests.

Under Les Waters’ well paced direction, the cast is uniformly excellent. Benanti is both funny and moving, and Dizzia a special delight. Annie Smart’s set – the doctor’s locked office on the audience left, the living room on the right -- vividly delineates the duality of the action, and, like David Zinn’s costumes, evokes the period beautifully. The set’s transformation in the final scene underscores the stunningly moving conclusion.

Some of Ruhl’s dialogue has an anachronistic quality at odds with the period setting, but on the whole, she’s written a very solid play that delivers humor and substance in a most entertaining way.

(Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, 212-239-6200 or www.telcharge.com) Print this post

0 comments:

Post a Comment