by Anthony Chase
In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play at the New Phoenix Theatre
Once, in the third grade, when future playwright Sarah Ruhl received a hate note from a bully, she took a pen, corrected the grammar, and gave it back. She maintains that bold sense of absurdity and dry awareness of the disconnection between human beings until this day. She also manages to inject that sensibility into her impressively audacious plays.
I have seen New York productions of three plays by Ruhl, all brilliant: The Clean House (2006) about a Brazilian woman employed as a housekeeper in a rich woman’s house, but who hates cleaning and lets her employer’s clean-freak sister clean the house in secret; Dead Man’s Cell Phone (2008), in which a woman in a restaurant answers the cell phone of a patron who has died at the next table and inserts herself into his tumultuous, disrupted life; and In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play (2009), in which a Victorian physician cures the hysterical symptoms of his patients by stimulating them to orgasm with a vibrator, oblivious to the sexual dimension of the treatment, while his own unfulfilled wife wonders what he’s up to in the next room.
With the New Phoenix Theatre Company production of the third play, Ruhl, who has a Tony nomination, was a Pulitzer finalist, and has won a MacArthur “Genius” fellowship, finally enjoys her Buffalo debut.
The excellent cast of the New Phoenix production of In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play has a deft sense of the absurdity of their characters’ situations. They assay the script with a secure sense of its ironies. Moreover, it is a credit to the finely tuned production, directed by Robert Waterhouse, that this play about orgasms does not overwhelm its audience, even in the intimate New Phoenix setting.
Lovely Katie White, as Catherine Givings, the physician’s wife, plays the central character. Catherine is an intelligent, inquisitive, and impulsive woman who becomes increasingly curious about the activities in her husband’s office. In time, she convinces one of the patients to explain the workings of the vibrator to her. Secretly, the women become complicitous, innocently inducing sexual orgasms in each other that neither has ever experienced with her husband.
White plays the role with ethereal innocence and candor. Catherine is uninhibited and yet entirely repressed. As played by White, Catherine’s pure simplicity convincingly leads her to stumble upon the secret to sexual satisfaction.
As the husband, Christian Brandjes is paradoxically loving, yet aloof, in that perfectly repressed Victorian way. Brandjes creates a man who is both efficiently scientific and credibly clueless. He and White have a happy chemistry between them and we dearly want their marriage to succeed despite the good doctor’s debilitating Victorian crust.
Wendy Hall gives a strong and beautifully nuanced performance in the pivotal role of Annie, Dr. Givings’s nurse. In a nimble Sarah Ruhl flourish, what begins as an inconsequential servant role eventually explodes with unexpected resonance, and Hall extracts the most from every syllable and gesture.
Similarly, young Danica Riddick, as the wet nurse hired to feed the Givings baby, skillfully negotiates the contours of a complex woman who, as an African American in 1880s Saratoga, is decidedly on the periphery of her employers’ world. Riddick gives an admirably understated and adeptly rendered performance.
The actors who play the visitors to Dr. Givings’s office are uniformly good.
Richard Lambert and Kelly Meg Brennan are simultaneously hilarious and heartrending as tragically mismatched Mr. and Mrs. Daldry. The dysfunction of their relationship, which Ruhl will resolve for the audience, but not for the Daldrys, is central to the workings of the play. These sad characters are delightfully written; Lambert and Brennan successfully make them powerfully yet fancifully real.
Patrick Cameron is gamely reckless as artist Leo Irving, the male patient who becomes the object of Dr. Givings’s comic passive aggression when his friendship with Mrs. Givings becomes too close. Cameron strikes the ideal comic tone to deliver an ultimately serious performance.
Dyan Burlingame’s handsome scenic design makes excellent use of the New Phoenix space, bringing the audience intimately yet discreetly close to the action with an environmental staging, and making sure that electricity itself makes a vivid appearance in the form of “lighting, contraptions, and effects” ingeniously and whimsically provided by clever Franklin LaVoie. Lovely costumes by Caitlin McLeod effectively communicate character, tone, and social status, and the performance is enriched by Steve Borowski’s original music, and sound by Tom Makar.
Under the direction of Robert Waterhouse, the New Phoenix Theatre has ensured that Sarah Ruhl’s introduction to Buffalo is achieved with a first rate production. In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play is a by turns moving and funny, thoughtful and silly. In short, this is a marvelous production.
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