|Stacy Fischer and Robin Bloodworth in “In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play.’’ (Jeff Zinn)|
‘Next Room’ gropes around sexual mores
WELLFLEET — In staging the peculiar, fascinating world of Sarah Ruhl’s plays — a world that is very much like the real one, except when it absolutely isn’t — tone is everything. If a director finds exactly the right line between comedy and drama, naturalism and nuttiness, we wade happily along into Ruhl’s strange and exhilarating sea. If not — well, it’s like trying to breathe water, or swim through air.
So forgive me if I sputter a bit as I emerge from the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater’s production of Ruhl’s “In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play.’’ There’s some marvelous stuff here, enough so that you can (almost) see why the play was nominated for both a Tony and a Pulitzer. But it’s also kind of a mess. And it exposes enough of the play’s flaws to make it even easier to see why “In the Next Room’’ didn’t win.
The play owes its catchy subtitle to the unique prop that almost serves as an additional character: a large, clunky-looking box with an odd metallic appendage. That, it turns out, is Ruhl’s re-creation of an actual historical artifact, a vibrator that was used to treat “hysteria’’ in women (and a few men) in the early days of electricity. No wonder Thomas Edison was so popular.
Ruhl places the device in the operating theater of one Dr. Givings, a room just off the parlor of his proper Victorian home. There he treats patients by inducing “paroxysms’’ in as little as three minutes, while his wife listens with increasing curiosity from the next room. The moans and cries at least take her mind off her own sorrows, which stem from her inability to nourish her own baby sufficiently — a problem that has led the doctor to advertise for a wet nurse.
These plot strands intertwine neatly when Dr. Givings’s patient Mrs. Daldry turns out to have a housekeeper who has recently lost an infant son. Thus while the doctor treats one woman’s “illness’’ in one room, the wet nurse remedies another’s “insufficiency’’ in the other.
You can see where all this is pointing, more or less: toward an exploration of Victorian notions of sexuality and gender roles, the imposition of male judgments on female bodies, and the repression, distortion, and inevitable release of physical drives. But the multiple threads of these ideas get all tangled up, along with discussions of electricity, modernity, art, science, passion, and way too much more.
Most disturbing, perhaps, is the way the play uses the wet nurse Elizabeth, who is black, as a symbol of sexual wisdom and physical ease. She’s not like these uptight white women — she’s got plenty of milk for that baby, and she knows that those funny feelings the women describe from the vibrator can be achieved in additional ways.
Other scenes suffer from a curious form of what I’d have to call liberated prudery. That is, the play seems to invite smug mockery of Victorian ignorance and squeamishness about sex, while at the same time remaining giggly and coy about sex itself. But the giggliness, if not the coyness, may be more the fault of the direction than of the script — and that brings us back to that essential question of tone.
For this production, the New England premiere of “In the Next Room,’’ WHAT chose one of its favorite playwrights, John Kolvenbach, to direct. He’s a good playwright, but apparently the only work he has directed previously is his own — and the lack of experience sadly shows. With the exception of Robin Bloodworth, who finds a neat balance of sobriety and quiet humor as Dr. Givings, everyone onstage seems to be flailing about in search of the right approach. Farce? Drama? Sketch? And are they Victorians groping toward modernity, or moderns playing at being Victorian?
Thus Stacy Fischer, as Mrs. Givings, and David Fraioli, as a rare male patient, seem to have dropped in from “Saturday Night Live’’; she, in particular, strides around so boldly in her confining skirts that it’s impossible to believe she’s as out of touch with her body as the script requires. Chanda Hartman as Elizabeth and Valerie Stanford as the doctor’s kind nurse work more subtly and in a more persuasively Victorian style, while Laura Latreille’s Mrs. Daldry just seems weirdly subdued.
It’s almost as if they’re all acting in different plays. Whatever plays those are, they’re not the one that “In the Next Room,’’ in different hands, might turn out to be.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.