In the Next Room
Sarah Ruhl's new comedy about the treatment of hysteria is genuinely hysterical.
Setting her play at the time Ibsen and Wilde were writing, Ruhl has no compunction about the dramatic propriety of vibrators, an appliance only used back then to treat women diagnosed with hysteria (or as the play puts it "congestion in the womb"). She's convinced -- and she's not alone here -- that the so-called condition was just another 19th-century tactic to repress women's natural desires in a world ruled by skewed sexist male fears.
The focus is on vibrator therapist Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris), who lives with his docile though vibrant wife (Laura Benanti). He treats daily the piano-playing Mrs. Daldry (Maria Dizzia), who is accompanied on many of her increasingly ecstatic visits by repressive husband (Thomas Jay Ryan), a gentleman of the retrograde school. As Mrs. Daldry regularly becomes relieved by Dr. Givings' relatively graphic vibrator ministrations, drawing-room-condemned Mrs. Givings is increasingly intrigued at what she hears through the closed door to the next room. Her interest in those goings-on only heightens as she also interacts with black wet-nurse Elizabeth (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), male hysteric and painter Leo Irving (Chandler Williams), and Dr. Givings' medical assistant, Annie (Wendy Rich Stetson).
Handed material that theatergoers stuck in a bygone age might find unsavory, director Les Waters has honed it to a fare-thee-well. (He also helmed the piece for its Berkeley Repertory Theatre debut.) And his actors are certainly a game lot. Dizzia, Benanti, and Williams are obliged to present several approaches to orgasms, a requirement that may have evoked second thoughts on initial readings of the lubricious script. But they leap in. Cerveris, as a detached man of science, is adept at stripping his emotions bare and then some. Bernstine gets to deliver the play's longest speech -- a confession of her resentment at wet-nursing an infant after her own son died at 12 weeks -- and she breaks hearts with it. Ryan's thick-skulled Mr. Daldry and Stetson's secretly unhappy and longing Annie are additional assets.
When Ruhl's thoroughly delightful and debunking comedy begins, Mrs. Givings is showing daughter Lotty the wonders of electricity by turning a lamp on and off. It's one more of the playwright's hard-to-miss symbols, this one instantly tipping spectators to the light she expects to throw on the depiction of characters struggling towards accommodation with sexual desire and acknowledging it as normal human behavior. (Speaking of symbolism, check out Annie Smart's smart set, designed as two eminently Victorian rooms, one featuring a surgical-room screen made of Burberry fabric.)
Indeed, Ruhl is so accomplished in her aim as she progresses toward a dazzling Edenic conclusion that Sigmund Freud himself might have applauded her bold grappling with civilization and its discontents. He might even have conceded that Ruhl supplies the correct answer to the question that baffled him, "What do women want?"