The Feminine Mecanique 

Berkeley Rep on early adopters of the vibrator.

At some point in its development, Sarah Ruhl's commissioned world premiere for Berkeley Repertory Theatre changed its title from The Vibrator Play to In the Next Room (or the vibrator play). While the elliptical new moniker is more appropriate to the tone of the play, it's helpful that the subtitle remains. Whereas Ruhl's sublime Eurydice, which director Les Waters brought to such memorable life at the Rep in 2004, used the Orpheus tale as a vehicle to explore themes of loss and father-daughter relationships in a setting rich in mythic metaphor, her new play is very much about what it's about.

Set vaguely in Victorian-era America, Ruhl's follow-up collaboration with the Rep and Waters explores the interesting historical footnote that the vibrator was invented as a medical device to treat female hysteria, a catch-all diagnosis for nervous, irritable, faint, sleepless, or "frigid" women. Although the preferred cure was sexual intercourse with one's husband, the complaint had also been treated for hundreds of years by vaginal massage to "paroxysm" by a doctor or midwife, and the vibrator was invented early in the age of electricity as a labor-saving device.

Ruhl makes much of the fact that the doctor sees nothing sexual or even personal about the treatment, pricelessly embodied in the way Dr. Givings (Paul Niebanck) applies the vibrator treatment while standing bolt upright and staring off into space, blithely making small talk about the marvels of electricity. The patients too are semi-oblivious to its sexual nature, having never experienced an orgasm during intercourse, which speaks to the distance in their marriages and the way in which Victorian prudery could make people ignorant of their own bodies. But these more meaty topics are almost asides, dwarfed by the omnipresence of the device.

The device gets all the best scenes. The doctor in it protests at some point that "this is not a sentimental novel," but the manner in which the feelings that develop between characters are resolved is as choppy and predictable as your average bodice-ripper. The only real spark is between the characters and the machine, and the anticipation is always sharpest in the doctor's operating theater.

Annie Smart's elegantly detailed set has the tastefully appointed sitting room of the doctor's home on the one side and the doctor's workplace just behind a door. Action occurs in the two rooms simultaneously, while Russell H. Champa's lighting accentuates one room or another. The bisected set serves as an apt visual metaphor for the closed-off compartmentalism of the Victorian mind while suggesting the opportunity for door-slamming farce that never bears fruit.

Paul Niebanck embodies an amusing admixture of obliviousness and bright-eyed enthusiasm as the formal but amiable Dr. Givings, and Stacy Ross imbues the small role of midwife and doctor's assistant Annie with surprising depth, just in the way she carries herself while briskly going about her business. As the doctor's neglected chatterbox wife, Hannah Cabell is quite funny when she's blurting out devastatingly inappropriate things, but her emotions turn on a dime in abrupt and unconvincing ways.

Eurydice star Maria Dizzia is a delight as the doctor's patient Mrs. Daldry, whether she's open-mouthed and quivering with pleasure while Dr. Givings rattles on about the wondrous innovations of Mr. Edison or just gliding through the room after a particularly good paroxysm. John Leonard Thompson is larger than life as her stentorian and boorish husband, and Melle Powers manages to tread lightly without fading into the wallpaper as the Givingses' African-American wet nurse Elizabeth, haunted by the loss of her own baby. Joaquín Torres is insufferable as Leo Irving, a painter and rare male hysteria patient, his pretentious dialogue made worse by stilted faux-British diction. He's a character out of a bad romance novel, and the thought that his hamminess may be entirely intentional doesn't make it any less obnoxious.

Waters brings out its humor and period feel nicely, aided by David Zinn's elegant many-layered gowns that make the ladies look dressed even when undressed and Jonathan Bell's old-timey piano music like a bridge between classical and ragtime.

The play is full of droll moments such as characters turning the electric light on and off just to marvel at its novelty, or comparing notes on the confusing sensations their paroxysms give them in the most florid metaphorical terms. But at the same time, In the Next Room is far more prosaic than Ruhl's other plays. There's no hint of the supernatural or magical realism, which in itself is unusual for her, but more importantly it lacks Ruhl's usual spare poetry of language. In an attempt to capture stuffy Victorianism, Ruhl maintains a formal tone and keeps contractions to a minimum, which flattens the tone. Ultimately it comes off as historical fiction, the human story rushed through in service to the machine.


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