Woolly Mammoth: In the Next Room

I saw two shows this last weekend that have been getting rave reviews, Chess at Signature Theatre and In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play at Woolly Mammoth. I enjoyed myself both times, but found I have to disagree with the unqualified praise these productions are getting.

First up was In the Next Room, the newest play from Sarah Ruhl, who just might be America’s best young playwright. Ruhl’s strengths have been talked about on this blog before, her sense of whimsy, her grasp of character, and her poetic prose. In the Next Room falls short of Ruhl’s previous work largely due to the fact that it is essentially a one-joke play. Sure, the joke remains funny the whole evening, but it’s still the same joke.

In the Next Room takes place in the late 1800’s, an era marked by the dawn of electricity. As the play opens, Catherine Givings (Katie deBuys) is demonstrating to her newborn the amazing ability they now have to control light at the flick of a switch. On. Off. On. Off. Meanwhile, her preoccupied husband, Dr. Givings (Eric Hissom), is preparing for his first patient of the day. Dr. Givings treats hysteria in women by inducing paroxysms (i.e. orgasms), a task that has become much easier thanks to the creation of an electric vibrator.

Dr. Givings’ treatment helps women (and at least one man) feel more alive, more calm, more like themselves, but he does not share his work with his dissatisfied wife. You always find my talk of electricity boring, he maintains, when Catherine attempts to connect with her husband.

Ruhl’s play draws on the ideas of human connection, or lack thereof, the way technology affects our lives, fertility and motherhood, and the sexuality of women, but these threads never quite coalesced for me. And perhaps I was feeling unromantic when I saw the play, but the ending, instead of feeling full of transcendent beauty, as moments in Ruhl’s plays often do for me, felt heavy-handed and overly sentimental.

I was amused to see that this play follows the unofficial Woolly Mammoth rule – either someone has to die, or someone has to get naked. In a way, you could say, both happened.

3 stars
Through October 3


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