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In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)

An Electrifying Take On A Touchy Subject

Few are perhaps aware that one of the first devices to benefit from the harnessing of electricity was, in addition to the toaster, the vibrator. Yes, that kind of vibrator. In the 19th century, doctors on the cutting edge of medical progress armed themselves with electric vibrators in the battle against hysteria. “Hysteria” was a blanket term for numerous “illnesses”, from anxiety and depression to outspokenness, and was primarily applied to women. Doctors felt that hysteria was caused by an excess of fluid in the womb that needed to be released through “paroxysms”- orgasms.

The invention of the electric vibrator made possible in three to five minutes what had previously taken an hour or more to achieve manually. I’m sure one can understand the excitement surrounding such technology. In examining how the lives of seven characters are affected by this modern medical miracle, Sarah Ruhl’s "In the Next Room (or the vibrator play") -- Berkeley Repertory Theater’s 50th world premiere -- portrays issues of intimacy, sex (both the physical act and the biological distinction), illness, technology, and race in a fascinating and bold way.

Directed by Les Waters, the action alternates between the Victorian sitting room of the Givings’ house and Dr. Givings’ operating theater in the next room, both beautifully rendered in precise detail and giving a sense of intimacy and privacy. This also introduces a feeling of voyeurism, as though we are intruding upon private moments, evoking reactions of horror, disbelief, fascination, and laughter.

It is in this way that the audience comes to know the innovative Dr. Givings, his vivacious and rosy-cheeked wife Mrs. Givings, the nervous Mrs. Daldry and her blustery husband Mr. Daldry (at whose behest Mrs. Daldry seeks treatment from Dr. Givings), and Mr. Irving, a romantic painter also receiving treatment from Dr. Givings. The cast of characters is rounded out with Annie, Dr. Givings’ single, thirty-something midwife, and Elizabeth, an African-American woman hired to be wet nurse to Mrs. Givings’ child. Between Dr. Givings’ clinical administration of treatments, Mrs. Givings’ hilarious episodes of verbal diarrhea, and Elizabeth’s growing attachment to the Givings’ baby, tensions, longings, forgotten desires, and deep frustrations reveal themselves to the audience.

What seems truly at issue in the play is the relationship between sexual pleasure and intimacy, and how and with whom one is able to attain those things. In seeing Dr. Givings administer treatments to Mrs. Daldry, the audience is truly given a sense of the disconnect at the time between these two things: a stiff and clinical Dr. Givings looks straight ahead and stands perfectly still as he lets the vibrator do its work under Mrs. Daldry’s sheet, saying to her, “I will tell you an amusing story…” and then going into one of his many long orations on the wonders of electricity. When Mrs. Daldry achieves “paroxysms” (a brave and convincing performance to rival the famous scene in When Harry Met Sally), Dr. Givings replies with a “Good job, Mrs. Daldry”- as though she is a child who has just correctly answered a math problem.

While this presents a rather humorous spectacle, one is also faced with the realization that inducing orgasm was nothing more than a medical treatment much like administering antibiotics or performing surgery, and was just about as erotic. Meanwhile, as Mrs. Daldry and Mr. Irving begin to benefit from Dr. Givings’ treatments, his “…always being in the next room with the door locked” takes its toll on Mrs. Givings, revealing her terrible loneliness and feelings of inadequacy as a mother. When she finally convinces her husband to use the device on her, we see just how total is Dr. Givings’ inability to grasp a potential link between sexual pleasure and intimacy between two people.

However, while most of the dialogue was excellent, a few moments in the play did not quite strike true. Most relationships between characters were expertly developed, creating complex and fascinating dynamics, such as those between Dr. and Mrs. Givings, and Mrs. Daldry and Annie. Yet, other relationships seemed a little more two-dimensional, creating a jolting sense of surprise when, for example, Mr. Daldry professes his love for Mrs. Givings. In addition, in revealing the prejudices of the typical Victorian lady and gentleman, a handful of lines seemed more generic proclamations of prevalent historical viewpoints than natural parts of the dialogue. While shockingly hilarious to a modern audience, these announcements in a few cases seemed ingenuine and merely interrupted the flow. Despite these few criticisms, though, the play was fantastic, a revelation not only of Victorian attitudes but also of our own.

Ultimately, "In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)" forces us to question the relationship between sex and intimacy, between nature and technology, between scientific objectivism and the deeply personal nature of physical pleasure. Modern views of sexuality have become so deeply ingrained that they are taken for granted; yet, this play asks the audience to re-examine its own views in light of those deemed outdated.

Berkeley Repertory Theater
January 30- March 15, 2009