Mid-way through Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play, now running at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company, two characters discuss electricity’s potential to revolutionize society. They live in the late nineteenth century, when light bulbs were still in their infancy, and speculate electricity might illuminate entire cities, or allow future generations to hear recordings of their ancestors. It’s funny, then, that the only other electric device seen on stage is a vibrator parading as a medical instrument. With a modern take on a bygone era, Ruhl’s orgasmic comedy focuses on antiquiated sexual mores, and the emotional turmoil it causes members of either sex. Moans and screams earn big laughs, and an emotional undercurrent pares away misguided attitudes toward intimacy and love.
Dr. Givings (Eric Hissom) is a physician who thinks he’s perfected the treatment for female hysteria. In the operating theater of his home, he stimulates “lower areas” with the help of Annie (Sarah Marshall) and his titular instrument. His latest patient is Mrs. Daldry (Kimberly Gilbert), who is sensitive to light and temperature. Mr. Daldry (James Konicek) is at his wit’s end, though Dr. Givings’ wife Catherine (Katie deBuys) offers some comfort. The Doctor devotes more attention to his patients than his spouse, so the bubbly Catherine grows more dissatisfied. Making matters worse, her breasts produce inadequate milk for her infant daughter. Later Catherine hires Mrs. Daldry’s housemaid Elizabeth (Jessica Frances Dukes) to be her wet-nurse (Elizabeth recently lost her baby). Catherine become increasingly curious about her husband’s treatment, meanwhile Leo the artist (Cody Nickell) finds himself on the business end of a prostrate-stimulator. The lines between pleasure and infatuation blur, and soon all the characters are in the midst of an emotional tailspin.
The play’s biggest laughs occur as Dr. Givings applies his treatment, and unlike many onstage comedies, passages without dialogue are as rewarding as a well-placed one-liner. Set designer Daniel Conway does did not create a literal wall between the drawing room and the operating theater. A meager door separates the two areas, so while Catherine dutifully sits as Dr. Givings uses the vibrator, the actors share a close space. It is ironic Catherine must remain sexually frustrated while her husband gives other women pleasure, and the situations get more bizarre as the play continues. Dr. Givings’ use of the vibrator on his wife does not go as planned, and Mrs. Daldry develops affection for Annie (the nurse resorts to a manual treatment when the power goes out). Hijinks and sexual pleasure define the first act, and their weighty repercussions define the second. Catherine finally gets the courage to articulate her yearnings, and while her bold approach has its risks, it is easy to empathize with her dissatisfaction.
Anyone who has seen When Harry Met Sally is familiar with the comic potential for orgasmic moans, but in The Vibrator Play, the context adds more complexity in which the actors can work. Eric Hissom’s deadpan face during the treatments are a highlight – shortly after he first turns on the buzzing and reaches between Mrs. Daldry’s legs, he follows with a conversational line that caused an eruption of laughter. The other male characters, Mr. Daldry and Leo, are static embodiments of familiar nineteenth century characters (i.e. the upright businessman and the emotive artist). Nickell and Konicek make the best of less meaty roles with ample presence, energy, and exaggerated accents. As Annie and Mrs. Daldry, Marshall and Gilbert convey complex emotions through language that’s both coded and strangely direct (Annie’s matter-of-fact discussion of bodily fluids is a pleasant running gag).
High concept sex jokes would be nothing without character development, and in this capacity deBuys and Dukes shine as Catherine and Elizabeth, respectively. DeBuys speaks in a cadence similar to Alison Brie, aka Trudy from Mad Men, and like Trudy, her high-volume energy instantly communicates buried sadness. As the play continues and Catherine becomes more outspoken, deBuys convincingly transforms from a dutiful wife into Dr. Givings’ equal. Dukes is less stage time, but her plainspoken language is a welcome antidote to the affectations of the other characters. Catherine’s thoughtless discussion of Elizabeth’s dead son is the subject of uneasy humor as the play begins, but the growth of both characters culminates in a direct conversation in which both women learn about each other and themselves.
Amidst the sexual humor and top-notch acting, Ruhl’s dialogue is bizarre yet accessible, symbolic yet direct. Every character is given their moment in the sun and a unique manner of speaking. Discussions of electricity become the metaphor for the missed connections amongst them. The gap between what’s spoken and felt is apparent from the first scenes, so if The Vibrator Play has any weakness, it’s that the second act stretches longer than it should. Yes, every character has a complete arc, but not all of them require a tidy resolution. The ethereal, high-concept last scene lingers too long after its climax, and it feels as if the playwright had trouble finding the appropriate final note. Still, these gripes are minor when you consider its successes. Modern costume comedies are rare, and genuinely funny ones are rarer still. Like the characters’ language, much has changed since the vibrator was used for medical purposes, but the play’s timeless insights with leave audiences abuzz with conversation.
In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play is playing at The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through September 19th. Buy tickets here!