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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Lyceum Theatre


  Chandler Williams and Laura Benanti/ Ph: Joan Marcus

The electric vibrator, invented in the 1880s, is one of history's biggest ironies. It was originally designed as a medical device to cure fragile women of symptoms of "hysteria." As many responded enthusiastically to the electric stimulation and color returned to their cheeks, male doctors apparently failed to consider whether their female patients had in fact experienced an orgasm instead of normal therapy.
In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), Sarah Ruhl's first play on Broadway following several major off-Broadway mountings, is raw, fascinating and madly entertaining. It represents a strange mix of Victorian costume drama, sex farce, Ripley's Believe It or Not, Freudian psychology and symbolism. Though Ruhl is primarily concerned with exploring marriage and repressed sexuality, she also touches upon lesbianism and breast-feeding.
Set in the upper-class home of Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris), a boyish but pompous medical doctor, and Mrs. Givings (Laura Benanti), his young, lonely wife, the stage is neatly divided between confined drawing room and the doc's adjoining medical office, which contains his buzzing contraption. To make the frustrated Mrs. Givings' self-esteem even worse, she must find a wet-nurse (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) for her new baby due to her own inability to supply sufficient breast milk. She also watches as the similarly fragile Mrs. Daldry (Maria Dizzia) benefits from daily treatments with the vibrator, and as even a male European painter (Chandler Williams) starts treatment. Eventually, Mrs. Givings works up the nerve to pick the lock of the separating door and try the device out on herself.
Benanti and Cerveris are musical theater favorites that have proven to be just as effective in dramas. While Benanti is absolutely radiant as she strives to make an emotional connection, Cerveris gives a deadpan performance that is believably aloof and unintentionally condescending. The rest of the cast is quite strong too, especially Quincy Tyler Bernstine, who provides a sad, powerful presence as the family's black wet-nurse, whose own baby recently died.
The second act could be trimmed by about ten minutes, but it ends with a striking finale in which the drawing room set disintegrates to reveal a wintry garden where the couple proceeds to undress, make snow angels and finally engage in passionate sex.
Les Waters' Lincoln Center Theater production gracefully mixes psychological realism and humor with Ruhl's unique lyricism. Though there are numerous female "awakenings" and unexpected nudity from Cerveris, the staging is never vulgar.
Given the stunning creativity of In the Next Room, it's tempting to imagine what other plays might be inspired from similar sexual devices.


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