Sarah Ruhl’s play In The Next Room, or the Vibrator Play has a double-barreled title, and the set for the show is similarly divided in two, showing us two rooms in a well-to-do 19th century family’s home. In the parlor, the talk is of the exciting changes that Edison’s new invention, electric light, will bring to the world.
In the next room, a doctor’s home office, the subject is a very different one. There’s another electrical invention designed to treat female hysteria that’s set to usher in some changes of its own.
Ruhl’s Tony-nominated play In The Next Room is currently in production at Atlanta’s Syncronicity Theatre through October 18. The historical dramatic comedy tells the story of Dr. Givings (Daniel May) who is an early proponent of a new electrical machine designed to treat female hysteria, and the plot focuses especially on his wife Mrs. Givings (Bryn Striepe), a young mother who gradually becomes more and more curious about the device in the next room.
Overall, it’s an appealing show that mixes the fun fustiness of historical period dramas like Downton Abbey with the ribald of contemporary sex comedies along with a dash of feminism.
May makes a fantastic Dr. Givings, curious and observant about the details of his work, but a little clueless about human interaction and the needs and desires of his own wife.
Bryn Striepe is one of the most interesting and appealing young actresses in Atlanta theater today, but I think she’s miscast here. As an actress, she has a wonderful contemporary robustness, a plainspokenness and an effortless sense of sexuality with a curious hint of something tough and scary underneath.
She’s compelling to watch on stage, but totally wrong for Ruhl’s predictably demure, 19th-century flibbertigibbet. We’re meant to see a transformation in the character from a shy, repressed, if slightly eccentric, housewife to a fully actualized and independent modern woman. Stiepe seems formidably rock-solid in her physical and emotional presence, modern and independent, from the moment the curtain opens on Act I.
Ruhl’s work has clearly resonated with audiences (this is actually the second time Synchronicity has produced Room, having had a hit with it in 2011, and the piece has had many similar productions around the country), but I actually think there’s something kind of delimiting about Ruhl’s cutesy, poetically emotional and hypersensitive female characters, though I’m likely in a small minority there.
The idea of women finding liberation through sexual fulfillment has already been thoroughly explored, if not exhausted. Even given that this is a historical drama, it seems a throwback in its theme and approach.
Moreover, the mishmosh of characters who congregate in the parlor — an artist, a housewife, a free person of color, etc — don’t seem convincingly 19th-century in the way they interact. And the dippy, lyrical ending, replete with snowfall, is cringe-inducingly corny.
Centering a drama around the vibrator seems gimmicky, and the writer often hits the same joke about it many times. The situations are predictable rather than inventive (a theater-goer familiar with Ruhl and given the basic concept of the show could probably guess with reasonable accuracy the various situations and the final outcome). I suppose I’m just not a fan of Sarah Ruhl, in spite of her solid reputation as both a popularly appealing and highbrow playwright.
Still, tastes do differ (one of the themes of the show) and in Synchronicity’s fine production, the show’s appeal will be apparent and understandable even to those who aren’t fans of Ruhl’s writing.