Onstage Orgasms, But Little Satisfaction in 'The Vibrator Play'

SCR's production of Sarah Ruhl's Victorian-era show doesn't reach a climax

A funny thing happens on the way to the climax of In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play):There isn’t one. It’s funny in an odd way. Because Sarah Ruhl’s play is, on its most obvious level, about getting off. One fortunate female character experiences about a dozen orgasms, another gets her fair share, and for good measure, a male character gets his prostate gland tickled several times.

But for a play obsessed with so many holes, The Vibrator Play’s parts don’t seem to equal a greater whole.

Yet there’s no denying the novel set-up. It’s 1877, and Thomas Edison’s Promethean gift of electricity to the civilized world has resulted in many wonderful implements, such as the electric lamps that adorn the nicely appointed drawing room of a certain Dr. Givings. But it’s the device in the adjoining room, Dr. Givings’ “operating theater,” that generates the most stimulation. It’s an electrified wooden box with a long cord sticking out of it and a suction-cup-like device at the end. It’s designed to cure the oh-so-common malady afflicting women in this bourgeois part of the East Coast: hysteria. And how does it cure it? Dr. Givings turns the machine on, applies the suction cup to a woman’s private parts, and she orgasms.

According to Ruhl, at the time, there was no medical connection between a female orgasm and sexual pleasure. Medically, the sensation was perceived as a release of toxic fluids in a woman’s womb, fluids that, over time, build up and cause depression, excitability and neurosis. By producing what he calls a “paroxysm” in women, Dr. Givings believes, he is relieving their suffering.

Dr. Givings (Andrew Borba, suitably cerebral), all facts and stuffy intellectualism, is merely doing what he can to help women in times of crisis. The machine is used only on women dealing with some form of emotional anxiety. That precludes using it on the doctor’s wife, Catherine (a feisty, peppery Kathleen Early), who, though a chatterbox and unable to produce enough breast milk for her newborn baby, is in perfectly good health. After all, she’s had a child, which, in Ruhl’s imagining of the Victorian Age, is all women have to do in order to qualify as healthy.

The arrival of Sabrina Daldrey (Rebecca Mozo, playing it with miles of emotional distance), a stunningly attractive young woman married to a man twice her age, upends the not-so-delicate balance of the prim-and-proper doctor and his exuberant young wife. Sabrina, her husband informs the doctor, is lethargic, sensitive to light and breaks down in tears constantly. Mr. Daldrey (Tom Shelton) is convinced her condition has something to do with the fact she’s been unable to conceive a child.

Dr. Givings takes Sabrina to his office, asks her to disrobe to her undergarments and slip beneath a sheet. He then turns on the machine and the magic happens. To no one’s surprise, Sabrina happily returns to the doctor time after time.

As Sabrina’s spirits begin to rise, Catherine’s curiosity as to what exactly is going on behind her husband’s locked door gets the best of her. She sneaks in, figures out how to work the machine and, though flabbergasted and a bit intimidated by what she’s feeling, begins administering her own treatments—as well as using the device on Sabrina. As the women’s sexuality is unleashed, it begins empowering them as well.

Though there are plenty of orgasms onstage from the two women, as well as a flamboyant English artist (Ron Menzel) suffering from his own form of hysteria (which is relieved by a far more contemporary-looking vibrator that the doctor graciously rams up his ass), there is nothing dirty or exploitative here. It’s all good-natured and sweet, and the real theme of the play isn’t the sexual awakening of women, but rather the lack of love and genuine understanding of the fairer sex in patriarchal Victorian Age marriages.

Problem is, the whole thing lacks momentum. Though blessed with uniformly strong performances and punctuated by ear-shattering screams of sexual pleasure, the production mostly just drifts along in a state of not-so-intense foreplay, leading nowhere too interesting. That doesn’t mean it’s a boring ride: Ruhl, one of America’s brightest young playwrights, is a deceptively subtle writer possessed of ample wit and intelligence. She’s a less-polemical Paula Vogel, concerned with similar questions of female empowerment. But rather than challenging or confronting audiences, she approaches her big questions by quietly, if intensely, nudging the audience to ask them for itself.

While that approach worked to great effect in her earlier plays—most notably The Clean House, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005—transposing her concerns to an Oscar Wilde-like drawing room populated by deliciously witty hurlers of saucy bon mots actually gets in the way of Ruhl’s concerns. It appears trapped in its time period and never makes the crucial stride to break out of its convention and resonate for our times.

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