Sarah Ruhl’s strange, provocative play, IN THE NEXT ROOM (or the vibrator play) is getting a smart production at SpeakEasy Stage. Director Scott Edmiston has assembled a first rate cast to enliven Ruhl’s tale of mass hysteria in the Victorian age. Ruhl based her play on a scholarly study of Victorian medicine (years before Freud’s revolutionary theories of sexuality) at a time when “nervous prostration” was understood to have its origin in “congestion of the womb.” Even more outlandish was the accepted medical practice of massage to achieve a “release” of the toxins. When doctors needed more time for other patients, a mechanical vibrator took the place of manual stimulation. Clinical vibrators, believe it or not, were advertised for sale in the Sears Roebuck catalog!
Ruhl has crafted a comedy of sorts about a practitioner and his wife to highlight the gulf between pleasure and marriage, a rift echoed in the off kilter arrangement of the set (by Susan Zeeman Rogers), whereby the parlor and the doctor’s adjoining office slant away from each other, just like their occupants. The wife prefers candlelight to electricity. She likes long walks and the scientist can’t waste the time … and sex for them, evidently, is merely an obligation.
This being a comedy (at times) the women will discover a more practical use for the office equipment. Anne Gottlieb and Marianna Bassham are downright hilarious, experiencing orgasm for the first time thanks to this new invention. Ruhl joins the ranks of Eve Ensler (vocalizing varied orgasms within different cultures in The Vagina Monologues) and Meg Ryan (in the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene in When Harry Met Sally) for getting us to laugh about a ticklish subject.
Unfortunately the play loses ground when Ruhl switches focus, as if she changed her mind about the issues she wanted to cover. Motherhood, surrogacy, feminism, homosexuality and the nature of the soul all make an appearance, but threads are dropped and characters abruptly change trajectory. Luckily, the SpeakEasy performances are what keep us in thrall. In addition to Gottlieb and Bassham’s star turns, Frances Idlebrook (as the doctor’s assistant) gives a heartbreaking portrayal of unfulfilled promise and Lindsey McWhorter gets a stunning speech about her love for a child (although it seems like it belongs in another play altogether). Many of Ruhl’s tangents seem peculiarly at odds with the love story at the heart of the play. (I’m only guessing at the “heart” of the matter because of the romantic revelation at play’s end.)
The men are peripheral (for the most part) to the joy and discovery of the female characters, although they initiate actions which set the women on their journeys: Derry Woodhouse is the doctor sorely out of touch with his emotions, Dennis Trainor, Jr. is the clueless husband of the depressed patient who flowers apart from him, and Craig Wesley Divino cuts a swath as the manic artist who awakens possibility in two of the women. Gail Astrid Buckley’s infinite layers of under- and outer clothing for the women speaks volumes about the strictures of the age.