Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Operating Theater: "In the Next Room, or, The Vibrator Play"

Last week I attended the first-ever public performance of Sarah Ruhl's latest, In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) at Berkeley Rep. I'd been hearing about this one for a while (and I'm glad she amended the title) so it was nice to be in the San Francisco Bay Area when it premiered! This is also probably the best area of the country to premiere such a play, considering San Francisco's reputation (the famous sex-toy shop Good Vibrations even gave away freebies at the 30-Below after-party). It is based on the historical oddity that vibrators were one of the first electronic devices ever invented, used by medical doctors to induce "paroxysm" in their female patients and cure them of "hysteria."

In the Next Room might be the first Sarah Ruhl play that contains nothing in it to violate the laws of physics, biology, chronology, etc. It's still got a wide streak of lyricism, and it's based on a quirky (but true!) premise, but everything that happens in it falls within the realms of human plausibility. Indeed, I suspect that Ruhl made a conscious choice to use Victorian-style dramaturgy in this Victorian-set play. In the Next Room is staged to take place on only one, richly detailed set, representing the parlor of the Givings' home and the adjacent room that Dr. Givings has appropriated for his medical examination room/"operating theater." And the characters never break the fourth wall, either. It is impressive to see Ruhl the rule-breaker, queen of the impossible stage direction, create an entertaining and original play using a more conventional style of playwriting.

The play's two heroines also seem based on Victorian iconography: chatty, bubbly blonde Catherine Givings (you get the sense that Catherine was a "popular girl" in school) and haunted, sensitive brunette Sabrina Daldry. What's interesting, though, is I feel that most modern playwrights would be attracted to Sabrina's darkness and pain, and make her the principal character. Instead, Ruhl focuses on Catherine, showing us that this woman, who at first seems comparatively shallow and untroubled, has her own insecurities and her own discomfort with the constraints of Victorian society; she just hides it better than the "hysterical" Sabrina does.

I did have some structural quibbles about In the Next Room. The second act is longer than the first and yet I still didn't feel like the story of the secondary couple (the Daldrys) was satisfactorily resolved. Also, for much of the play, I felt that the subplot wherein Catherine hires Elizabeth, an African-American woman, as a wet-nurse for her baby daughter was unnecessary. The play is already juggling several large subjects (gender, sexuality, mental and physical health) so that it seems overly ambitious to tackle race relations as well. Also, though the play obviously strives for political correctness, it still felt stereotypical, or condescending, that Elizabeth is the only woman in the play who has achieved orgasm during sex. (You know, the old cliché that black people are less inhibited, more sexual than whites.) Still, Elizabeth eventually delivers one of the most affecting monologues I have heard in a long time... so does that make it worth it? I don't know.

What is most revolutionary about In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) is how innocent it is. The characters' attitudes toward the vibrator are governed by this Victorian-era syllogism:
a) Sexual pleasure is sordid
b) Thus, respectable upper-middle-class white women do not experience sexual pleasure
c) Thus, the "paroxysms" that the vibrator induces in these women have nothing to do with sex, or sexual pleasure
d) Thus, the vibrator is perfectly healthy and wholesome
So the amazing thing is seeing how these women, who are so inhibited in every other aspect of their lives, are completely uninhibited when it comes to the vibrator, because they don't know any better. In this play, emotions and relationships can be messy and lead to guilt, but orgasms are always guilt-free. And even in the 21st century, that is a bold and refreshing sentiment.

In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)
is at Berkeley Rep through March 15. I strongly recommend it, despite my quibbles--I haven't even mentioned how funny it is!

Top photo: Maria Dizzia as Sabrina, Hannah Cabell as Catherine.
Bottom photo: Melle Powers as Elizabeth, Hannah Cabell as Catherine, Joaquin Torres as Leo Irving.
All images © Berkeley Repertory Theatre. All rights reserved.

3 comments:

Jaime said...

I saw a reading of this play last summer (or late spring - I just remember how it was nine thousand degrees in the room) and really loved it. I'm sad the weird race/sexuality stuff hasn't been resolved - that part really didn't sit right with me. But it's such a funny, interesting, really tender play. I just hope that when it inevitably comes to NY, the production is half as gorgeous as these pictures make this one out to be.

Marissa said...

Now it occurs to me that "The Clean House" has a similarly dubious racial subtext: the exuberant Latinas showing the uptight WASPs how to live. On the one hand, this is well-intentioned; but on the other hand, these are *really old stereotypes*...so I know what you mean about feeling uneasy.

Yes, it was a gorgeous production; glad to get some Gilded Age eye-candy even in this economic downturn!

Mike said...
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