In the Next Room or the vibrator play -- Theater Review

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Although it would seem to hold the promise of being an extended dirty joke, Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room or the vibrator play" actually is a surprisingly funny and sensitive portrait of the eternal disconnect between men and women.

Set in the late 1880s at the dawn of the age of electricity, this witty comedy illustrates how this new form of energy changed lives far beyond bringing electric light into peoples' homes.

Set in a wealthy spa town, the play, based on historical fact, depicts the introduction of the electric vibrator into the repertoire of medical doctors, who used it to cure female (and some male) patients of the vague ailment known as "hysteria."

One of its practitioners is Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris), who lives with his wife (Laura Benanti) and baby in a well-appointed house in which his medical office is situated right next to the living room. We first see him apply his techniques upon the listless and clearly depressed Mrs. Daldry (Maria Dizzia), who has been escorted by her frustrated husband (Thomas Jay Ryan). After a few short minutes in which Dr. Givings distractedly applies his new device to her nether regions, she experiences a "paroxysm" that has life-changing effects. Not that this one treatment will suffice: Dr. Givings suggests daily visits, to which Mrs. Daldry happily agrees.

As the new patient begins to bloom, the outgoing Mrs. Givings finds herself increasingly out of sorts. She already feels insufficient as a mother, having to hire Mrs. Daldry's housekeeper (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) as a wet nurse to her newborn because of her inability to provide sufficient breast milk.

She also becomes increasingly curious about the nature of her husband's treatments, especially considering the cries of ecstasy that she periodically hears emanating from his office. Eventually, she and Mrs. Daldry take matters into their own hands (excuse the expression), sneaking into the doctor's office and merrily learning how to use the device without any supervision.

The second act introduces another patient, a bohemian artist (Chandler Williams) whose treatment at the hands of the good doctor, involving a male-oriented variation on the vibrator, fuels one of the play's most raucously funny scenes.

The playwright, responsible for such works as "The Clean House" and "Dead Man's Cell Phone," mines her subject for suitably bawdy humor without resorting to vulgarity. But what really gives the work its distinction is its sensitive exploration of the physical and emotional repression suffered by the women of the era, which has yet to disappear entirely. Nor does Ruhl neglect the male side of things, as evidenced by the beautifully staged final scene in which Mrs. Givings provides her husband with a lesson about the beauty of his own body.

The play, seen at the Berkeley Rep, has been given a pitch-perfect Broadway staging that beautifully balances its humor and pathos. Under the sensitive direction of Les Waters, the ensemble delivers sterling performances, with Benanti a particular delight as the woman for whom electricity turns out to be a marriage saver.

Venue: Lyceum Theatre, New York (Through Jan. 10)
Presented by: Lincoln Center Theater
Cast: Laura Benanti, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Michael Cerveris, Maria Dizzia, Thomas Jay Ryan, Wendy Rich Stetson, Chandler Williams
Playwright: Sarah Ruhl
Director: Les Waterrs
Set designer: Annie Smart
Costume designer: David Zinn
Lighting designer: Russell H. Champa
Sound designer: Bray Poor
Music: Jonathan Bell
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