Sarah Ruhl has managed quite a feat in her Broadway debut: Under the lush set and costumes of her late-1800s period comedy In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) she’s crafted a strikingly frank, optimistic and contemporary story of female sexual empowerment. Set among the well-to-do of a New York town recently wired for electricity, the play concerns the relationships between Catherine Givings (the infectiously buoyant Laura Benanti), her hyper-rational husband Dr. Givings (the perfectly subdued Michael Cerveris), and the people who come to him seeking to be cured of hysteria. These include the severe Mr. and Mrs. Daldry (Thomas Jay Ryan and Maria Dizzia) and delightfully grandiloquent Leo Irving (Chandler Williams), of whom Dr. Givings remarks with deadpan earnestness: “Hysteria is very rare in a man, but then again he is an artist.” Their treatment, administered with clinical detachment by the doctor and his assistant Annie (Wendy Rich Stetson), involves a slightly awkward, but extremely effective electronic vibrator that looks something like an early telephone.
Just as Catherine marvels at the electrical current as the play opens—pulling a light on and off with great delight, ostensibly for the entertainment of her indifferent infant child—so does her husband regard this practically magical medical wand with which he treats hysteria as further proof of “that great American” Mr. Edison’s divine genius. Much of the tension between the couple revolves around the use of the vibrator as either a medical instrument or a device for pleasure, which eventually drives more deep-seated conflicts in their relationship out into the open. Their discord and eventual reconciliation illustrates Ruhl’s fundamental point: that sexual pleasure should not be rationed and distributed through systems of shame and guilt. In the end, it’s the doctor’s arcane attitudes towards sex that need radical treatment. The climactic scene in which Catherine cures her husband’s prudishness is the play’s most heavy-handed, but by then the pleasures of the production have become so engrossing that no overwrought awkwardness can jolt us from our cathartic release. From start to finish the play is refreshingly, defiantly sex-positive, staging a dozen or so orgasms in plain sight, all of which (save Irving’s) are more erotic than comic. By the end of the first act it seems as though the era’s greatest discovery wasn’t electricity, but rather the female orgasm.
The play doesn’t come off perfectly, though, particularly as Ruhl and director Les Waters fumble with the shifting racial politics of post-Civil War America in the hazily sketched African- American character of Elizabeth (Quincy Tyler Bernstine). She’s alternately fetishized and condescended to by her employers, the Daldrys; Catherine, who takes her on as a wet nurse; and Irving, who paints her as the Madonna breastfeeding the Givings’ baby. Bernstine doesn’t add much texture to the part, which ends up as more of a cliche than a compelling foil to the problems of the bourgeois leads. On the other hand, Stetson lends the fairly small role of Annie a quiet tragedy that becomes almost crushing when she finally goes after something she wants. Here, Ruhl qualifies her optimism: release from some sexual prohibitions is still a long time coming.