A dead baby, a mourning mother, two dead marriages, hints of adultery and shifts in sexual orientation sound like the stuff of heavy drama. Yet In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play, at the Long Beach Playhouse is as much about hilarity as it is about anguish.
The “operating theatre” of gynecologist Dr. Givings (Don Schlossman) and the adjoining parlor in which his wife, Catherine (Kate Woodruff), holds sway is the venue for this 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist. Set at the turn of the century, the play smartly directed by Robert Craig begins with Catherine chattering away at her newborn, who may just say more to her than her husband. He is fascinated by electricity, attending evening lectures at which dogs are electrocuted to determine if AC or DC is more effective. (This was long before PETA.)
Dr. Givings treats “hysterical” patients (read: sexually frustrated females) in his home office with his able and repressed assistant, Annie (Stephanie Schulz), and what appears to be a cross between an electric sander and a hair dryer (ouch!). He explains the “science” to new patient Mrs. Daldry (Sophie Mura) and her stuffy but looking-to-be-corrupted husband (Bob Fetes): “…if we can release some of that congestion and invite the juices downward, your health will be restored.”
The good doctor boasts that, previous to this device, inducing patients “demanded quite a lot of skill and patience….but thanks to this new electrical instrument, we shall be done in a matter of minutes.” Why do what a finger has done for millennia when a gadget is more efficient and totally hands off? Those now-shelved skills were obviously never used on his wife, who is shocked to discover from Elizabeth, the, ahem, wet nurse (Liliana Carrillo), that what Catherine experienced with the vibrator is what Elizabeth is accustomed to enjoying on a regular basis with her husband.
Though all action takes place under ample sheets, there is absolutely no mystery as to what’s transpiring when Mrs. Daldry and eventually Catherine achieve what Dr. Givings terms a “paroxysm.” In perhaps the most giddy and delightful scene, the two women sneak into the exam room because, as Catherine puts it, “Women are capable of pushing a button for themselves.” What ensues is akin to a slumber party, only without the nail-painting.
The juxtaposition between burdensome layers of sumptuous fabric that comprise the ladies’ dresses and the ease with which Dr. Givings’ patients disrobe is one of many striking contrasts that pepper the play. The play’s title itself is such a juxtaposition: enigmatic and poetic head followed by nothing-left-to-the-imagination subhead. After things get rolling, so much sexual energy is uncorked that any character might be entertaining a tryst with any other, newborn aside please.
Ironically, the zealous Dr. Givings, who appears devoid of even a drop of libido, save what was necessary to father a child, is most in need of his “treatment.” He remarks to his only male patient, an artist played by Scott T. Fin, “What men do not see because their intellect gets in the way could fill many books.” Books, of course, are the stuff of the intellect.
This kind of masterful dialogue in which words circle back on themselves is easily missed, as one great line follows another. Playwright Sarah Ruhl deftly shifts from comedy (“Hysteria is rare in a man, but then he’s an artist.”) to poetry (“I find people who do not use umbrellas while it is raining horribly romantic. Strolling, no, striding, through the rain, with wet hair, looking at a drop of water on a branch.”)
Equally masterful are the actors’ shifts in mood and intention. Dr. Givings, for example, casually asks Mrs. Daldry (Doll Dry?) upon her initial visit to remove her clothing, adding, “We will respect your modesty in every particular.” And how, pray tell, is that possible in this situation? Then, in a terribly misguided attempt to allay her fears of being roasted, he cheerily describes the electrocution of an elephant on Coney Island last week, truly believing he is amusing her.
Kate Woodruff, who perfectly plays a sometimes-dreamily-poetic, sometimes-incredibly-clueless Catherine Givings, is certainly a sight to behold as she weaves her many-colored skeins of demeanor. Of the doctor, she sensitively remarks: “My husband opens his umbrella at the merest hint of rain. And even if it does not rain, he will leave it open, stubborn as an ox, and keep walking. My husband is a scientist.” In those few well-chosen words, she conveys the enormous cavern that separates them.
A few minutes later, Catherine displays the height of insensitivity when she says upon her initial meeting with the grieving mother and wet nurse who has come to feed Catherine’s withering newborn, “We hope to have extra children” and “Furniture is so dead without children.” Such cruelty is somehow all the more stark as Catherine seems oblivious to the fact that she’s delivering it.
Catherine even takes a stab at the macabre and the forbidden, musing that a baby’s first instinct is to eat the creature who gave birth to it, since mother’s milk is quite accurately part of a woman’s body. One can almost feel the women in the audience draw in a collective deep breath, shocked and fascinated that a new mother could think such a thing, much less suggest aloud that her child is an alien seeking to devour its host.
Social critics will appreciate Catherine’s and Mrs. Daldry’s musings on electricity. They wonder at “the day when all will be electric,” even the recording of the voices of the long-dead, “never to blow out a candle with your own breath.” Only a constant on, off, on, off, on, off of electric lights, pleasure and relationships. Ladies, the audience completely understands, as that time is now.
In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play, continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre through May 31. $24 for general admission, $21 for seniors and $14 for students with valid ID. Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm Sundays at 2pm. The Long Beach Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim St. Call (562) 494-1014, option 1, to reach the box office. Tickets are also available online at lbplayhouse.org .