The set pieces for Sarah Ruhl's new comedy, In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) nearly replicate those of Hedda Gabler: a living room with arm chairs, candlesticks, a spinet piano, and sumptuous rugs. Except there's also an "operating theater" with an examining table, bassinet, electrical lamps (scads of them), and an odd, hulky instrument that plugs into the wall and lets out an annoying buzzing sound. It's the 1880s and we are peering into the home of Mrs. Givings, a well-heeled, corseted, Victorian woman in her late twenties, and her husband Dr. Givings, a man roughly twenty years her senior who specializes in "hysterical disorders" and gynecology. It turns out the strange machine next to his examining table is actually a primitive version of the vibrator — that same piece of orgasm-inducing technology that we now see in sex toy shops throughout the world, usually in a much sleeker, portable form. The thing's giant, obtrusive form belies its purpose, making it look as though modern gadgetry has stepped in not only to disrupt a very traditional domestic sphere, but also to impose a new, contemporary form of intimacy. Thus it emerges as the play's central metaphor.
Like all of Sarah Ruhl's work (she also authored the 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist The Clean House and 2006 play Eurydice, which recast the myth of Orpheus from his wife's point of view) In the Next Room is an incredibly clean and literary play. It revels in transparent metaphors: the many electrical lamps which represent Dr. Givings' fetish for technology (several times in the play he delivers lectures on the wonders of electricity while masturbating his patients); the wet nurse who becomes both an artistic muse and a Madonna figure; the confining zippers, buttons, and ruffled layers that characterize Victorian clothing; and funniest of all, the heavy rain — and later, snow — that parallels a series of ecstatic female ejaculations. Such analogies might seem campy had Ruhl tried to make the play pornographic, but given the historical context — Victorian mores running up against progress and modernity — it's appropriate that the characters resort to sublimated language and innuendo.
In fact, In the Next Room is a pretty progressive play, even by 2009 standards. It's safe to assume that most of Ruhl's audience is familiar with vibrators, but watching so many female (and one male) orgasms onstage is a different kettle of fish. Not to mention that most of them are rendered awkwardly, to emphasize the taboo-ness of female pleasure at a time when people still believed that hysteria was triggered by excess fluid in the womb. But all that happens in the midst of a gentle, sweet, traditional comedy. You see the word "vibrator" in the title, and you think one thing. Then it turns out to be something else. In the Next Room runs January 30 through March 15 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (2025 Addison St., Berkeley). BerkeleyRep.org
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