THERE'S a certain theater review I hate writing as much as I'm sure you hate reading it—the one that goes, "This play's direction was solid. The production values were slick. But the source material was brain-achingly dull/sexist/mediocre." All the conditions can be in place for an exceptional theatergoing experience, but if the script's too safe to deliver, I have to write that disappointed review. And I will.
But I don't want to.
And today, I don't have to, because Profile Theatre's latest, In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play, is a rare play that takes meaningful risks (and with Sarah Ruhl writing, if it doesn't work for you, you don't get to blame the script). Directed by Profile's Artistic Director Adriana Baer, In the Next Room takes on hysteria, the junk-science lady disease the Victorians applied to all manner of physical and psychological problems. The snake-oil cure? Physician-applied vibrators (srsly), here administered by Dr. Givings (Leif Norby), an avowed man of science who treats patients in his at-home "operating theater" while his wife, Catherine (Lauren Bloom), listens in the next room, her curiosity growing in proportion to her postpartum boredom.
To a modern audience, there's something deeply absurd about seeing vibrators presented as therapeutic devices with no connection to sex. But as Dr. Givings says, "What men do not observe because their intellect prevents them from seeing would fill many books." At first, this is funny—Dr. Givings' patients gleefully rack up appointments; Dr. Givings is horrified at the thought of "treating" his own wife—until you realize that this is basically a play about adults who don't know how their bodies work. Catherine, for example, has given birth—and in fact seems scarred by it—but has never seen her husband naked. So to see Lauren Bloom play her with a mix of adult anxiety and an incurable, almost adolescent curiosity, it's realism at its best. There's pathos to her struggle to be seen and understood (and if you were expected to rely on a newborn for company every day, I bet you'd be kind of annoying too). The rest of the cast is equally convincing—Norby's Dr. Givings is clinical but not cold, Foss Curtis and Matthew Kerrigan are both hilarious as his patients, Karl Hanover pulls off a convincing lecherous husband, and Beth Thompson and Ashley Nicole Williams are both hugely effective in their roles as women who aren't upper-class ladies of leisure.
There's no ambiguity about In the Next Room's sexual politics: It contains multitudes on love, queerness, race, sexism, and relationships between men and women. That it contains all these without becoming an express train to Bummertown is a testament to Ruhl's writing. Her dialogue moves freely between the lyrical and the everyday. She's one of those rare playwrights (think Mary Zimmerman) who can toss off convincing drawing-room conversation, then hit you with an image so poetic and destabilizing that you're shocked to attention. Ruhl does what I wish more playwrights would: She makes the ordinary strange. I don't think this is an unusual expectation. I think it's why most of us bother to go to the theater in the first place. Why pay up just to see the same safe stories that leave you cold? Like Catherine in In the Next Room, we want to feel something, and with a production like this one, we do.