The Feminine Mecanique

Berkeley Rep on early adopters of the vibrator.

At some point in its development, Sarah Ruhl’s commissioned world
premiere for Berkeley Repertory Theatre changed its title from The
Vibrator Play
to In the Next Room (or the vibrator play).
While the elliptical new moniker is more appropriate to the tone of the
play, it’s helpful that the subtitle remains. Whereas Ruhl’s sublime
Eurydice, which director Les Waters brought to such memorable
life at the Rep in 2004, used the Orpheus tale as a vehicle to explore
themes of loss and father-daughter relationships in a setting rich in
mythic metaphor, her new play is very much about what it’s about.

Set vaguely in Victorian-era America, Ruhl’s follow-up
collaboration with the Rep and Waters explores the interesting
historical footnote that the vibrator was invented as a medical device
to treat female hysteria, a catch-all diagnosis for nervous, irritable,
faint, sleepless, or “frigid” women. Although the preferred cure was
sexual intercourse with one’s husband, the complaint had also been
treated for hundreds of years by vaginal massage to “paroxysm” by a
doctor or midwife, and the vibrator was invented early in the age of
electricity as a labor-saving device.

Ruhl makes much of the fact that the doctor sees nothing sexual or
even personal about the treatment, pricelessly embodied in the way Dr.
Givings (Paul Niebanck) applies the vibrator treatment while standing
bolt upright and staring off into space, blithely making small talk
about the marvels of electricity. The patients too are semi-oblivious
to its sexual nature, having never experienced an orgasm during
intercourse, which speaks to the distance in their marriages and the
way in which Victorian prudery could make people ignorant of their own
bodies. But these more meaty topics are almost asides, dwarfed by the
omnipresence of the device.

The device gets all the best scenes. The doctor in it protests at
some point that “this is not a sentimental novel,” but the manner in
which the feelings that develop between characters are resolved is as
choppy and predictable as your average bodice-ripper. The only real
spark is between the characters and the machine, and the anticipation
is always sharpest in the doctor’s operating theater.

Annie Smart’s elegantly detailed set has the tastefully appointed
sitting room of the doctor’s home on the one side and the doctor’s
workplace just behind a door. Action occurs in the two rooms
simultaneously, while Russell H. Champa’s lighting accentuates one room
or another. The bisected set serves as an apt visual metaphor for the
closed-off compartmentalism of the Victorian mind while suggesting the
opportunity for door-slamming farce that never bears fruit.

Paul Niebanck embodies an amusing admixture of obliviousness and
bright-eyed enthusiasm as the formal but amiable Dr. Givings, and Stacy
Ross imbues the small role of midwife and doctor’s assistant Annie with
surprising depth, just in the way she carries herself while briskly
going about her business. As the doctor’s neglected chatterbox wife,
Hannah Cabell is quite funny when she’s blurting out devastatingly
inappropriate things, but her emotions turn on a dime in abrupt and
unconvincing ways.

Eurydice star Maria Dizzia is a delight as the doctor’s
patient Mrs. Daldry, whether she’s open-mouthed and quivering with
pleasure while Dr. Givings rattles on about the wondrous innovations of
Mr. Edison or just gliding through the room after a particularly good
paroxysm. John Leonard Thompson is larger than life as her stentorian
and boorish husband, and Melle Powers manages to tread lightly without
fading into the wallpaper as the Givingses’ African-American wet nurse
Elizabeth, haunted by the loss of her own baby. Joaquín Torres
is insufferable as Leo Irving, a painter and rare male hysteria
patient, his pretentious dialogue made worse by stilted faux-British
diction. He’s a character out of a bad romance novel, and the thought
that his hamminess may be entirely intentional doesn’t make it any less
obnoxious.

Waters brings out its humor and period feel nicely, aided by David
Zinn’s elegant many-layered gowns that make the ladies look dressed
even when undressed and Jonathan Bell’s old-timey piano music like a
bridge between classical and ragtime.

The play is full of droll moments such as characters turning the
electric light on and off just to marvel at its novelty, or comparing
notes on the confusing sensations their paroxysms give them in the most
florid metaphorical terms. But at the same time, In the Next
Room
is far more prosaic than Ruhl’s other plays. There’s no hint
of the supernatural or magical realism, which in itself is unusual for
her, but more importantly it lacks Ruhl’s usual spare poetry of
language. In an attempt to capture stuffy Victorianism, Ruhl maintains
a formal tone and keeps contractions to a minimum, which flattens the
tone. Ultimately it comes off as historical fiction, the human story
rushed through in service to the machine.

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