In the next room | TheaterMania
If Henrik Ibsen and Oscar Wilde had decided to collaborate on a post-modern salon comedy, the hotsy-totsy duo surely would have shot something like Sarah Ruhl’s genuinely hysterical new work. In the next room or the vibrator set, currently presented by the Lincoln Center Theater at the Lyceum Theater on Broadway.
Setting his piece around the time Ibsen and Wilde were writing, Ruhl has no qualms about the dramatic ownership of vibrators, a device used at the time only to treat women diagnosed with hysteria (or as put it the piece “congestion in the uterus”). She is convinced – and she is not alone here – that the so-called condition was just another 19th century tactic to suppress the natural desires of women in a world ruled by biased sexist male fears.
The focus is on the vibrator Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris), who lives with his docile but dynamic wife (Laura Benanti). He treats pianist Mrs. Daldry (Maria Dizzia) on a daily basis, who is accompanied on several of his increasingly ecstatic visits by her repressive husband (Thomas Jay Ryan), a back school gentleman. While Mrs Daldry is regularly relieved by Dr Givings’ relatively graphic vibrator care, Mrs Givings, condemned to the living room, is increasingly intrigued by what she hears through the closed door to the next room. Her interest in these events only increases as she also interacts with black nurse Elizabeth (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), hysteric and painter Leo Irving (Chandler Williams) and Dr. Givings’ medical assistant Annie (Wendy Rich Stetson).
Material that theatergoers stuck in a bygone era might find unsavory, director Les Waters refined it for a farewell. (He also directed the play for its Berkeley Repertory Theater debut.) And his cast is certainly a cinch. Dizzia, Benanti, and Williams are forced to feature multiple approaches to orgasm, a requirement that may have raised doubts about early readings of the lewd script. But they rush. Cerveris, as a detached man of science, is adept at laying bare his emotions and more. Bernstine gives the longest speech in the play – an admission of her resentment at having fed an infant after her own son died at 12 weeks – and she breaks its heart. Ryan’s thick-headed Mr. Daldry and the secretly hapless and eager Annie of Stetson are added assets.
When Ruhl’s utterly delicious and demystifying comedy begins, Ms. Givings shows her daughter Lotty the wonders of electricity by turning a lamp on and off. It’s another of the playwright’s hard-to-miss symbols, one instantly tipping viewers into the light she expects to cast on the portrayal of characters struggling to adjust to sexual desire and recognizing it as a normal human behavior. (Speaking of symbolism, check out Annie Smart’s clever set, designed as two eminently Victorian pieces, one featuring a Burberry fabric operating room screen.)
Indeed, Ruhl is so accomplished in her goal as she progresses to a dazzling Edenic conclusion that Sigmund Freud himself could have applauded her daring struggle with civilization and its discontents. He might even have admitted that Ruhl was providing the correct answer to the question that puzzled him: “What do women want?”