January 6, 2010

Closing the Door too Soon on "In the Next Room"

April, T.S. Eliot famously said, is the cruellest month.  But if Eliot were alive today and working in theater, I bet he would dread January even more.  This is the time of year when producers on and off Broadway take a hard-eyed look at their shows to figure out which ones can survive the barren-box-office wasteland of winter. Then, they start throwing the deadweight off the sled.

Shrek flew its freak flag for the last time on Sunday.  Burn the Floor, Ragtime, The 39 Steps, and even the long-running Altar Boyz will take their final bows this coming Sunday. Finian’s Rainbow and Wishful Drinking will follow on the 17th and just yesterday came word that My First Time will close on the 22nd after over two years at New World Stages.  But the show I’m saddest to see go is In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, Sarah Ruhl’s surprisingly affective comedy that also ends its run on Sunday.

In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play has the kind of wink-wink title and nudge-nudge storyline that suggests it will be no more than a one-joke evening. The plot revolves around a doctor at the turn of the 20th century who treats his emotionally distressed patients, most of them female, with a new electric gadget that causes them to have tension-relieving paroxysms or, as we know them, orgasms.

Ruhl says she based the play on actual vibrator treatments from that period when the country, in the process of changing from cozy but dim candle and oil lighting to the mechanical brilliance of electricity, was dazzled by the powers of science and the intellect.  And initially much fun is made—over and over again—of the way the characters embrace the new technology of the doctor’s clinical device while remaining clueless about the sexuality involved.

But as the evening progresses, the play reveals itself to be far more than a one-note punchline.  Peeking through the surface smirkiness are vital questions about sensuality and people's need to connect to one another. One subplot about a black wet nurse who has been hired because the doctor’s wife is unable to produce enough milk to feed their newborn seemed to belong to a different play until I realize that Ruhl intended to probe the many ways in which we deny ourselves sensual pleasures at the same time that we crave them.

The seven-person cast is superb.  Michael Cerveris uses his natural restraint to wonderful effect as the pleasure-giving doctor who has repressed his own desires (click here to see a Broadway Buzz photo essay on Cerveris).  And Maria Dizzia manages both to outdo Meg Ryan in the famously giddy I’ll-Have-What-She’s-Having scene in the movie “When Harry Met Sally” and to convey the serious fulfillment of a woman breaking through society’s inhibitions. 

But best for me was Laura Benanti as the doctor’s unsatisfied wife who yearns for something beyond the constrictions of her middle-class existence.  Benanti, who won a Tony for playing the title role in the recent revival of Gypsy, is always lovely to look at and now, after some earlier missteps, she’s blooming as a dramatic actress as well.

The design team is top-shelf too.  Annie Smart has created a bifurcated set that quietly underscores the division between the doctor’s professional and personal lives.  David Zinn’s gorgeous costumes provide their own narratives as the women strip away layer after layer of corsets and crinolines before they are free enough to take the treatment. And Les Waters pulls off the neat trick of allowing Ruhl’s easy laughs without sacrificing her play’s more complex emotions.

So why isn’t In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play running longer?  Maybe it’s the title.  Or maybe it’s the absence of Hollywood names on the marquee.  Whatever it is, the landscape for people who enjoy smart theater is going to be even more desolate without it.

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