I love the smell of newsprint in the morning... especially when it means we're in the New York Times. On the front page of today's arts section, there's a lovely review by Charles Isherwood of In the Next Room (or the vibrator play). And there's an amusing (and enormous) photo of Maria and Hannah that grabs your eye when the story jumps to the back page.
What does this mean to us? Naturally, we're pleased, proud, and appreciative of the attention. What does this mean for you? If you haven't already bought tickets, you might want to get with the Times.
Here's the review in its entirety...
February 18, 2009
THEATER REVIEW | 'IN THE NEXT ROOM (OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY)'
A Quaint Treatment for Women Wronged
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
BERKELEY, Calif. — The contraption looks rather quaint, a small wooden box with a few knobs set on a tall, rolling metal platform. A thin tube with a porcelain doodad on the end protrudes from it.
“It looks like a farming implement,” one baffled character says as she considers the machine for the first time. It would add a contrasting note of the rustic and antique to a living room furnished in sleek modern pieces.
In fact this odd mechanical box is a central player — the title character, you might say — in the new play by Sarah Ruhl, “In the Next Room (or the vibrator play).” A fanciful but compassionate consideration of the treatment, and the mistreatment, of women in the late 19th century, this spirited and stimulating (sorry) new comedy from one of the country’s brightest young playwrights is having its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theater here, in a handsome production directed by Les Waters.
The play is set in a spa town in the vicinity of New York in the late 1800s. Electricity has just begun to spread its mysterious glow in the homes of the well-to-do. It has recently been installed in the parlor of Dr. and Mrs. Givings, and more significantly in the room next door, the doctor’s “operating theater,” where he practices gynecology and the treatment of “hysteria” using that strange electric-powered box.
A new patient, Sabrina Daldry (Maria Dizzia), is suffering from symptoms that alarm her husband (John Leonard Thompson). She is sensitive to light and prone to tears. Referring obliquely to the cooling of the marital fires, and perhaps the real reason for his dissatisfaction, Mr. Daldry adds, “I am afraid there is very little sympathy between us.”
The forthright and self-confident Dr. Givings (Paul Niebanck) sends Mr. Daldry for a short walk while he begins treatment. “We need to relieve the pressure on her nerves,” he says reassuringly. “You will soon have your blooming wife back.”
Enter the magic box. While Sabrina lies supine on a table, her skirts removed and a white sheet placed decorously over her, Dr. Givings makes businesslike small talk while using his new machine to induce a “paroxysm,” the slightly alarming term for what would today be called something else entirely, and is generally considered more recreational than therapeutic.
Sabrina emerges from her first session feeling drowsy and emotional, but rather good. The roses have been restored to her cheeks, and she is not disinclined to return for another session. Tomorrow would be just fine.
Comical though the play’s depiction of Dr. Givings’s methods might seem, it is based on historical fact. The use of primitive vibrators to treat women (and some men) suffering from a variety of psychological ailments referred to as hysteria is well documented. But Ms. Ruhl’s play is hardly intended as an elaborate dirty joke at the expense of the medical profession. Her real subject is the fundamental absence of sympathy and understanding between women and the men whose rules they had to live by for so long, and the suspicion and fear surrounding female sexuality and even female fertility.
For while Dr. Givings, assisted in no small measure by his stalwart female assistant, Annie (Stacy Ross), is pursuing a remarkably successful treatment of Sabrina, his own wife, the candid Catherine (Hannah Cabell), is beginning to languish from loneliness and unhappiness in the parlor next door.
Catherine has recently given birth, but Dr. Givings has decided that her milk is not sufficient for nursing, so a wet nurse must be found. Sabrina’s black housekeeper, Elizabeth (Melle Powers), who recently lost a baby, is given the job, but Catherine feels as if her maternal instincts have been thwarted and denied.
Bored and frustrated, she becomes increasingly curious about what goes on in the room next door, not least because those confused cries of excitement are hard to tune out. In the delightful scene that concludes the first act, Catherine unlocks the door to the operating theater with Sabrina’s hat pin and the two women engage in a liberating session of self-administered therapy, without benefit of prescription or medical supervision.
Ms. Ruhl, the author of “The Clean House,” “Eurydice” and “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” has not abandoned her affection for unexpected leaps or lyrical language here, although with its traditional construction, old-fashioned set (charmingly realized by Annie Smart) and lavish period costumes (by David Zinn), “In the Next Room” looks almost as if it could be a revival of Shaw or Wilde. (Mr. Zinn’s exquisite dresses are period-appropriate but witty too in their superabundance of buttons and bustles and gatherings that constrict or obscure the natural female form.)
Ms. Ruhl’s characters always exist both on a poetic plane and a flesh-and-blood one, and while the people in the new play speak formal English suitable to the period and the social milieu, they also drift into imagistic reveries that would lead to confused pauses over tea service in real life.
Nor has Ms. Ruhl abandoned her gentle impressionistic touch and her gift for playful symbolism. The play is dappled with images of lightness and darkness, moisture and its absence, that underscore its themes. (There is a single truly vulgar joke, overplayed in this staging, when the sounds of ecstasy in the doctor’s office coincide with Catherine’s arriving late to answer the door in the parlor, calling out what one would quite naturally call out.)
The play’s second act has some structural infelicities. Elizabeth has two lumpy speeches about black-white relations that seem an unnecessary attempt to give this subsidiary character a more central role. (I’m not sure how I feel about the idea of having her enlighten Sabrina and Catherine about the possibility of experiencing the sensations they’ve awakened to with the machine in bed with their husbands.) Ms. Ruhl mostly weaves together the multiple strands of her plot, which includes the arrival of a male patient, a frustrated artist, with dexterity. But there is too much of it, and it becomes clotted in the unraveling.
The cast is mostly fine, with a few standouts. Ms. Dizzia (seen in “Eurydice” in New York) brings to the role of Sabrina a touching hesitancy that slowly blooms into confidence as Sabrina finds herself liberated, not so much by the doctor’s treatment as by the emotions it arouses. Mr. Niebanck’s abstracted expression as he briskly goes about his work is hilarious. And Ms. Ross imbues the smallish role of Annie with a fully human dimension, a sympathy and intuitive wisdom about her work that is affecting.
Although the doctor’s magic box has a liberating effect on Sabrina and Catherine, all the women in the play are ultimately transformed by their interactions with each other. And in the final scene the process is extended to include the doctor himself, as Catherine administers some therapy of her own to her husband. A woman who has never been allowed to listen to the music of her own body teaches her husband to discover the beauty in his own.
IN THE NEXT ROOM (OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY)
By Sarah Ruhl; directed by Les Waters; sets by Annie Smart; costumes by David Zinn; lighting by Russell H. Champa; sound by Bray Poor; music by Jonathan Bell; production stage manager, Michael Suenkel. Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theater, at the Berkeley Rep Roda Theater, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, Calif.; (510) 647-2949. Through March 15. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
WITH: Hannah Cabell (Catherine Givings), Joaquin Torres (Leo Irving), Maria Dizzia (Sabrina Daldry), Paul Niebanck (Dr. Givings), Melle Powers (Elizabeth), Stacy Ross (Annie) and John Leonard Thompson (Mr. Daldry).
Photo of Maria Dizzia and Hannah Cabell
courtesy of kevinberne.com
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