Friday, November 20, 2009

In The Next Room or the vibrator play (The SOB Review)

In The Next Room or the vibrator play (The SOB Review) - Lincoln Center Theatre, Lyceum Theatre, New York, New York

** (out of ****)

In Sarah Ruhl's provocative yet surpringly limp In The Next Room or the vibrator play that opened last evening, the playwright apparently wants to have it both ways.

Try as Ruhl might to suggest that the climax isn't the most important thing, she dares to make hers exactly that. Her conclusion's message on the delicate balance between intimacy and, er, paroxysms isn't so much heavy-handed as it is a few delicate digits milking things for all its worth making the rest of the work seem too clever by half.

Euphemisms and word play abound in supplementing the handheld variety in this work about the introduction of the vibrator in the Victorian era. As demonstrated by Dr. Givings (an unusually earnest Michael Cerveris), the device's earliest use was purely clinical in treating (primarily) women for "hysteria" by releasing paroxysms.

While he's helping his patients feel, um, better, his own wife (an unfortunately out-of-her-element Laura Benanti) is feeling low from post-partum neglect that we'll just call a no-coital connection with Dr. Givings. Exacerbating her melancholy are the squeals emanating from her husband's office, immediately adjacent to their home's living parlor. She's hearing an array of pleasured patients including the blooming sapphist Mrs. Daldry (portrayed with dizzying delight by Maria Dizzia) and caddish artist Leo Irving (Chandler Williams).

Try as she might to rouse her husband, including by actively engaging both Leo and Mrs. Daldry's own spouse (Thomas Jay Ryan), if only to elicit a response from Dr. Givings, Mrs. Givings is largely left to her own devices. That is, until Mrs. Daldry introduces her to the one Dr. Givings has been using in treatment.

Ruhl certainly tries to titillate by mining laughs at the expense of the period's intense degree of innocence and prudishness. And it is often quite funny. But even with an eleventh hour epiphany by Dr. Givings that enables him to view his wife in a new light (furnished here by Russell H. Champa), the real stimulation comes too late to be completely satisfying. It's enough to leave you feeling as if someone has been faking it all along just to be done with it.

Post script: On a side note, one aspect of this production that was particularly infuriating for me were the extremely poor sight-lines from my left orchestra seat. Not only could I not see much of the action, but for a play that yearns to be about intimacy, I felt as though I was in the theatre next door, trying to get my own peek inside. For this, I not only fault director Les Waters' blocking of his actors, but also Annie Smart's less than ingenious scenic design that separated the two time appropriate rooms from each other.

Would I have enjoyed the play more had I been able to see everything? It's possible. Word to the wise: If you're going to see this In The Next Room, be sure to get center seating to enjoy an unobstructed view.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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