The dawn of the age of the vibrator
by David Ollington
Sarah Ruhl’s play In the Next Room or the vibrator play uses humor with a touch of serious undertone to bring forth some fertile ideas: art and science, the life-changing capacity of advanced technology, physical attraction, the necessity of sexual pleasure and facing biological reality.
Under the direction of Sidonie Garrett, the Unicorn Theatre presents a competent production of the show.
Dr. Givings (Matthew Rapport) specializes in treating women with hysteria. His bubbly wife Mrs. Givings, played with lavishness by Cinnamon Schultz, marvels at her new gadget, an electric light, and expresses concern for her newborn daughter Lotty. Mrs. Givings’ lactation is lacking.
Enter Mrs. Daldry (Heidi Van) and Mr. Daldry (Logan Ernstthal) who come to consult with Dr. Givings about Mrs. Daldry’s emotional complications. The doctor offers to treat her for hysteria, excuses Mr. Daldry, and with the assistance of his stalwart nurse/assistant Annie (Kelly Main) treats her with a new instrument designed to induce a paroxysm. Thus, with Ruhl’s play, comes the dawn of the age of the vibrator.
Mr. Daldry engages in discourse with Mrs. Givings during the action in Dr. Givings’ operating theater. Set Designers Gary Mosby and Laura L. Burkhart divided the stage in half with a wall center stage that disappears as it reaches towards the audience. Simultaneous action occurs in each respective room throughout the show, true to the play’s title. Mr. Daldry and Mrs. Givings discuss the weather, possibly taking a walk together, and the need for an umbrella as we see Mrs. Daldry undressing (“You may keep your underthings on,” the doctor tells her) to prepare for her first treatment.
This convention recurs more than once with Mrs. Givings in the living room, her ear hungrily pressed against the door of the operating theatre, desperate to understand her husband’s “treatments” of his patients. Garret orchestrated this challenge with expertise; the dueling scenes support rather than distract from each other.
|(l to r) Matthew Rapport as Dr. Givings, Kelly Main as Annie and Heidi Van as Mrs. Daldry (laying) in IN THE NEXT ROOM or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl. (photo by Cynthia Levin and courtesy of Unicorn Theatre)
Ruhl has given actors an opportunity to strike theatrical gold, lying on the operating table, receiving their first experience with an electrical pleasuring device. Van, Schultz, and later Chris Roady as Leo (“It is very rare, a case of hysteria in a man, but we do see it,” says Dr. Givings) all incite raucous laughter with their reactions to what happens under Dr. Giving’s sheet.
In addition to the advent of new technology, the play offers intricacies of relationship. Mr. Daldry comes on to Mrs. Givings. Dr. and Mrs. Givings hire a wet nurse Elizabeth (Marion Bailey). Mrs. Givings envies her baby’s intimacy with Elizabeth. Leo is an artist, a painter who seeks treatment for his creative blocks. Leo demands to paint Elizabeth as she nurses the baby, offering her handsome pay. Mrs. Daldry begins to experience undeniable attraction towards Dr. Giving’s nurse/assistant Annie. Mrs. Givings expresses lustful attraction towards Leo.
Ruhl offers us a mirror of our times. Mrs. Givings and Mrs. Daldry discuss the ramifications of electricity, both awestruck at the possibility of the impending technological changes. Mrs. Givings suggests that there may be electrical pianos some day. God forbid,” replies Mrs. Daldry.
Like many recent straight plays at the Unicorn, In the next Room or the vibrator play dwells in the realm of comedy in Act I and unearths the underlying emotional pain in Act II.
Schultz is nothing short of remarkable as Mrs. Givings. She makes Ruhl’s eccentric, trendy character even more illustrated and broad, all the while drawing us into this mercurial world. We learn soon that her effervescent humor and irrelevant utterances stem from a deep sexual frustration, compounded once she understands the nature of her husband’s work. Her inability to provide adequate breast milk for her baby further frustrates her. Mrs. Givings deals with her inner demons by singing, joking and chattering.
As I watched Schultz dance with this hilarious but pathetic character, I began to feel strongly reminded of another character. Ruhl’s Mrs. Givings feels like an archetype, a standard kind of sock, female, comic role. Is it Mrs. Malaprop? Auntie Mame? Or even one of the Golden Girls from the sitcom?
William Inge, the Kansas native playwright of such classics as Bus Stop and Picnic wrote the sad play The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, which opened in 1957. In it, he created an eccentric, trendy female character Lotty, the childless aunt, the comic relief, and yes, Lotty’s antics hide a frigid sexuality, a woman who has tragically never experienced sexual pleasure. Watching Schultz’ dynamic portrayal of Mrs. Givings, I kept thinking of Inge’s Lotty. And then at the Unicorn, I heard a character refer to the baby by name, Leticia or Lotty for short.
Inge set The Dark at the Top of the Stairs in the 1920s. Ruhl set In the Next Room or the vibrator play in the 1880s. Ruhl’s Lotty could have grown up to become Inge’s Lotty. I believe Sarah Ruhl chose to write a play about the parents of Inge’s character.
Matthew Rapport plays Dr. Givings with simplicity, masculinity, and a deep, rich voice, sounding appropriately Victorian. Marion Bailey as Elizabeth seems cut off emotionally. Bailey’s neutrality may offer a contrast to the roller coaster emotions that Schultz embodies.
David Keihl’s reliably stellar sound design reigns most supreme with the electrical noises made by the vibrating machine. Dr. Givings raises the intensity when the patient fails to attain a paroxysm in a timely manner, and Kiehl realizes the increased electrical buzz with musical humor.
Mosby’s and Burkhart’s set fails to decide what should be two-dimensional and what should be three. The molding around the doors is painted flat onto the walls. The framed pictures on the walls are completely flat, resembling posters more than hanging frames. A full, three-dimensional, framed mirror rests against the back wall. The painting of the wallpaper for the living room lacks detail. Perhaps given their resources, the set designers could have made a choice to abstract the set more rather than attempt to build a Victorian-era box set. The furniture pieces sport detailed upholstery and shiny, curved wood. The cumbersome walls don’t match the chairs.
In the Next Room or the vibrator play makes for a good number of laughs, some provocative ideas, and moves along with a steady, agreeable pace, however, there is a bit of a lag towards the end of Act II. Worth seeing (particularly Schultz), the show plays at the Unicorn main stage through Feb. 13. Call 816-531-PLAY (7529) Ext. 10, or visit www.UnicornTheatre.org for more information.
David Ollington can be contacted at Ollington@aol.com.