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In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play

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Laura Benanti, Michael Cerveris, ...
Joan Marcus

In the Next Room

type:
Stage
Current Status:
In Season
run date:
11/19/09
performer:
Laura Benanti, Michael Cerveris
director:
Les Waters
author:
Sarah Ruhl

We gave it a B-

The subject matter of Sarah Ruhl’s new comic play, In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, can’t be beat. Did you know that in the early days of electricity in the late 19th century, electric-powered vibrators were used to treat women diagnosed with hysteria, inducing so-called ”paroxysms” that were believed to help the bodily fluids flow more healthily? Or that wet nurses were commonly hired to provide milk for babies whose mothers could not produce sufficient amounts of their own? From such fascinating Women’s Studies 101 material Ruhl has crafted a genial, well-mannered play about a somewhat cold science-obsessed physician (a stolid Michael Cerveris) and his effusive, overly chatty wife (Laura Benanti).

The plotline of In the Next Room, which just opened on Broadway, is not nearly as ribald as you might expect. (The female characters undress to their dainties, it’s true, but period underwear is considerably more chaste than most contemporary outerwear.) That restraint is almost a shame, because Ruhl’s play could have benefited from a broader, farcical touch. As it stands, In the Next Room occasionally seems like a barely dramatized version of a college lecture about the treatment of women in the 19th century (both medically and otherwise). Too often, the characters seem like types, stand-ins for some period point of view, rather than flesh-and-blood individuals.

Cerveris’ Dr. Givings is an enlightened fellow who seems all too aware of male ignorance about women, noting to one of his rare male patients, ”What men do not observe because their intellect prevents them from seeing would fill many books.” Yet he too seems heedless of the frankly sexual nature of his treatments, even when he is persuaded to administer them to his wife. Benanti seems a little ill at ease as Mrs. Givings, particularly in the early scenes — she’s such a regal, intelligent presence on the stage that it’s hard to imagine her as an excitable flibbertigibbet. But she grows into her role as her character becomes more emboldened in the second act.

Benanti is strongest in her scenes with Quincy Tyler Bernstine, who plays an African American servant hired to wet-nurse Mrs. Givings’ baby when she fails to produce enough milk. Bernstine, who was exquisite earlier this year in the Pulitzer-winning drama Ruined, similarly grounds In the Next Room with her moving portrait of a woman constrained by race and class, still grieving the death of her infant son to cholera. She is the least comical of all the characters, the least hysterical (in either sense), and the one I most wanted to know more about. Grade: B?

(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)

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