To imagine a time before humans understood that there was a connection between sexual intercourse and pregnancy, you have to go back pretty far through the mists of time. The relationship between sexuality and the female orgasm, however, which seems just as obvious to us today, a mere century ago hadn't been made – at least not in uptight Victorian culture. Unhappy upper- and middle-class women, women who today would be simply described as dissatisfied with their lives and/or sexually frustrated, were "diagnosed" as "hysterics" and "treated" – sometimes with vibrations that led to a release, or "paroxysm" as it is so cutely called in Sarah Ruhl's engrossing but not thoroughly baked new play.
In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play takes us back to the late 18th-century home office of a fictionalized doctor-inventor (Michael Cerveris) who uses the new miracle of electricity to create vibrating machines capable of stimulating women – and the occasional man – to orgasm. The doctor's wife (Laura Benanti), a frustrated free spirit, craves romantic love, sensuality, and excitement but gets at most deference from her buttoned-up husband, who has more passion for science than for, well, passion. To make matters worse, poor Mrs. Givings can't provide adequate milk for their new baby and feels she's a bad mother, yet has little to distract her from her unhappy state except the taking of long walks in all kinds of weather.
Dr. Givings' new patient (the fabulous Maria Dizzia) and her gruff husband (Thomas Jay Ryan) arrive to put a little kick into the proceedings, and a race/class issue is raised with the possibility of hiring a black wet nurse (Quincy Tyler Bernstine). But stilted dialogue and caricatured personalities (especially the doctor's, his character being the least colorful) prevent Act I from registering as more than an amusing trifle powered by easy laughs derived from the various characters' excited reactions to the machine. It isn't that the script makes light of their ignorance; it's simply that it seems to be coasting on a cloud of the obvious.
Act II is immediately livened up by the presence of Leo Irving (a delightful Chandler Williams), a rare male patient suffering from melancholy after a romantic disappointment. With his sweeping gestures, fascinating conversation, and sexy artistic temperament, he's an almost too-easy foil for the preoccupied doctor. But the characters deepen as the plot thickens over the course of the long second act, which culminates in a beautiful set change as the perfectly appointed but stuffy rooms flip into a magical snowy garden.
By the time this snow-globe ending rolls around, the play itself has transformed from a mildly clever comedy of manners into an old-fashioned comic romance, with sad partings preceding something resembling a wedding (or a wedding night, anyway). In spite of the thoroughly charming performances, including a sprightly and touching turn from the always effervescent Ms. Benanti and dignified, graceful work from Mr. Cerveris and Ms. Bernstine, I found the plot turns, the character development, and (in the first act) the dialogue formulaic.
Yet after a while as the play deepened it won me over, like a hit pop song with a predictable hook and a fancy arrangement, a song which proves, after several listens, to contain depth charges of honest feeling beneath its shiny surface. It wasn't merely the funny moments, the nifty set and the absolutely stunning costumes. Sexual content aside, there's a heartwarming fairy-tale sparkle to the story, and at the same time it provokes us to think about how malleable is the human nature that we tend to think is so fundamental. When society straitens us into particular, narrow channels, we become creatures almost alien to ourselves – yet still comically (and often, though not here, tragically) recognizable.
In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play, presented by Lincoln Center Theater, plays on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre.
Photo by Joan Marcus.