In the Next Room or, the vibrator play

vibratorThe Short Version: Sarah Ruhl’s Broadway debut, set at the dawn of electricity. Mrs. Givings is a new mother with a distracted doctor husband who specializes in curing women’s “hysteria”… by using a vibrator.  Meanwhile, she finds herself just wanting to be loved – but finding it hard to find love in these rapidly changing times.

The Review: I saw this beautiful play on Broadway, so reading it some two years later only brings back wonderful memories of the production. It’s perhaps Ruhl’s most straight-forward play: no turning into almonds or talking stones here. The only truly fantastic moment comes at the end, as they suddenly move into the garden as it snows.
As a result, the play has an interesting quality to it. Ruhl’s flights of lyrical fancy are more grounded… But everything still feels a bit beautiful, a bit surreal. Characters speak with such longing and wonder at the world… It’s a pleasure.

I still found a handful of moments to be oversimple.  The ‘romantic’ subplots, which lean towards the farcical but never quite make it out of the languorous Ruhlian idea of a farce, are a bit laughable and only the budding lesbian relationship between Annie and Mrs. Daldry has any real weight to it.  Sure, Mrs. Givings falls for Leo and he falls for Elizabeth and Mr. Daldry makes a move on Mrs. Givings… but all of that felt perfunctory.  It never had much weight.  Indeed, I’m not sure Leo even really needed to be a character, when you think about it.

The play is a beautiful thing though.  Even Ruhl’s lesser works just have an economy of language that feels luxurious.  It is so idiosyncratic and so wonderful that you cannot mistake it for anything but Sarah’s voice.  As a result, the play overcomes some of the problems that may’ve hobbled a lesser playwright.  It’s a wonderful piece and it makes a terrific statement about the beginnings of electricity, about how our views on women and men and sex have changed (and how some pieces have stayed the same), and about how progress pushes us forward even while we’re blindly stuck in the same place.

Rating: 4 out of 5.  It isn’t Ruhl’s best work – perhaps because it is her most down-to-Earth.  Plays like Eurydice and Melancholy Play and The Clean House are strange and quirky and otherworldly…. but you can’t keep writing those plays as you grow up so you have to transition.  This is a transition play.  I miss the Broadway production – reading it doesn’t have quite the same effect as watching the beautiful Laura Benanti fluster about the stage.  But it’s still hands and heads above most playwrights.

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