Thursday, November 19, 2009

In the Next Room

Photo: Joan Marcus

It's the 1880s, and Dr. Givings has a thriving medical practice. His specialty? Curing hysterical women (and the occasional man). His method? Providing pelvic massage until the women experience "paroxysms." His equipment? An electric vibrator. Dr. Givings is a fictional creation, but his method of making a living is not. In her new play In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, Sarah Ruhl imagines how this treatment, perceived as nonsexual by (most?) practitioners and recipients, might affect the lives of the people involved. With a somewhat cartoony first act, a moving second act, and a too-long, odd, but not uninteresting final scene, In the Next Room doesn't completely gel. But it is thought-provoking, frequently funny, often touching, and nicely sex-positive, as well as largely well-acted. A particular nod to two supporting players: Wendy Rich Stetson as Dr. Givings' assistant manages to reveal her entire emotional life in one "oh," and Quincy Tyler Bernstine, as a wet nurse, acts with such dignity and restraint as to mitigate the cliche of the wise black woman who is stronger and more sexually aware than the white people she works for. (If you see In the Next Room, be sure to get a copy of the Lincoln Center Review issue dedicated to the play, available at the theatre for a one-dollar donation. Featuring articles on vibrators, orgasms, and women's attitudes about themselves and their sexuality, it provides fascinating context for the play.)

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