New comedy at PlayMakers explores the invention of the vibrator | Theater | Indy Week
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New comedy at PlayMakers explores the invention of the vibrator 

Julie Fishell, Matthew Greer and, in foreground, Katie Paxton in PlayMakers' In the Next Room

Photo by Jon Gardiner

Julie Fishell, Matthew Greer and, in foreground, Katie Paxton in PlayMakers' In the Next Room

I'm torn here. In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, is a fairly sparkling and uplifting comedy about an amusing enough topic: the invention of the vibrator—or at least, the medical discovery of its use as a sexual device at the dawning of the age of electricity. Despite that fact, this script's well-intended exploration of the history of human sexuality in the 19th century remains obviously hyperfocused and still strangely blindered at the same time.

Back on the plus side, viewers of this PlayMakers Rep production will doubtless appreciate guest director Vivienne Benesch's crisp direction and Kelsey Didion and Matthew Greer's nimble performances as the Givings, a wife and a doctor making sexual discoveries, both by accident and with intent, in Saratoga Springs in the 1880s. The duo anchors a strong cast of performers on Marion Williams' droll—and only semi-subliminal—Victorian set (hint: the wall). These are all significant strengths, and this production capitalizes on them.

The problem is, the play also reinforces an odious racial and class-based cultural stereotype or two. And the more acquainted you are with the history of the now-discredited "disease" once called female hysteria, the more impatient—or angry—you're likely to become with the proceedings.

It well may be a joke of historic proportions that the men and women (and doctors) of the bourgeois upper classes knew no more about female human sexuality than the extensive historical record suggests they did. It's true that In the Next Room has an airy, at times nearly gossamer touch, which includes the priceless silent nods Dr. Givings (Greer) and his nurse, Annie (Julie Fishell), exchange whenever their patient achieves "hysterical paroxysm" (better known as orgasm). But the fact remains that women in the 1800s who were diagnosed with this chimerical disorder weren't always inconvenienced merely by emotionless manual or electrical genital stimulation. No: Doctors also relied upon institutionalization, sedation or forced bed rest (as in Charlotte Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper"), torture (as playwright Sarah Ruhl's script itself mentions, if only in a single line) and mutilation (clitoridectomy and ovariectomy).

A play (or film, like the upcoming Hysteria, with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy) strictly devoted to the "lighter side" of hysteria never truly confronts the fact (in the research of Rachel Maines and Barbara Ehrenreich, among others) that the medical science of the time literally considered female human sexuality a disease.

But such inconvenient ghosts are quickly banished from the stage at the Paul Green Theatre. Katie Paxton's fetching Mrs. Daldry is only momentarily beset by remoteness and chill before a series of comic orgasms transforms her into frowziness and sexual indiscrimination—or at least a late-19th-century version of the same. The sight gag of a "Chattanooga vibrator," and its subsequent utilization, restores the artistic output of a male visual artist (Matt Garner). Dee Dee Batteast's Elizabeth gives a much-needed element of sobriety as an African-American wet nurse hired to breast-feed the Givings' infant after the death of her own child. Unfortunately, she's also asked to provide insight into proper human sexual response to the clueless white women who employ her.

Ruhl is a celebrated younger playwright, and this text at times conveys her considerable poetic sensibilities, even in a script that is markedly more conventional than her earlier works (including last season's production of Eurydice at the ArtsCenter). The resolution at the end marks a personal accord and the heartening mutuality of two characters' sexual discoveries. But when In the Next Room blunders through class and race issues and turns its back on all but hysteria's most amusing patients, we're left to wonder at whose expense these jokes are told.

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