Dr. Givings (Paul Niebanck) is a no-nonsense man of science, a skilled technician who, like a Michael Palin character in a Monty Python sketch, stands rigid and erect, his face an idiotic mask of formality, as he pleasures a female patient with an electric vibrator until she cries out in ecstasy for deliverance from above. Catherine (Hannah Cabell), his wife, is a new mother who's guided by a loopy logic that bubbles uncontrollably from her lips pretty much whenever she opens her mouth. He is all restraint and control; she is all impulse.
The good doctor and his wife are the most richly drawn characters in Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), now playing at Berkeley Rep, but that, alas, is not saying much. Like the rest of the play's characters who mechanically enter and exit the two-room set, Givings and his wife are tired clichés, which makes their eventual catharses and epiphanies about life, love and the virtues of being connected to each other in an honest and human way so implausible. Where, we wonder, could their insights have possibly come from?
Ruhl's play is set in the United States at the dawn of the electric age. Like the Givings' newborn daughter, the 20th century is barely in its infancy. For privileged people like Catherine, her doctor husband and his patients, the world is a place of endless social constraints and unlimited technological possibilities. In addition to bringing light to homes once illuminated by fire, electricity has spawned a number of crackerjack new inventions, including electric vibrators, which are used by male doctors to treat women (mostly) whom they have diagnosed with hysteria. The cure involves bringing these women to orgasm so that the fluids putting pressure on their wombs can be released. What they need, in other words, is a good lay.
Or at least that's how Samantha on Sex and the City might explain it to Carrie today. But as I watched these uptight Victorians in their gorgeous costumes (hats off to David Zinn) busy themselves in scene after scene, I wondered if perhaps Ruhl's decision to set her play about marriage and intimacy in this particular era mired it needlessly in the anachronistic. Sure I was drawn to her source material: The Technology of Orgasm: Hysteria, the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction by Rachel P. Maines sounds like a terrific read. I'm not sure, though, that it makes a terrific play. I concede that sexual intimacy remains confusing terrain for a great many couples, even in "a time when pornography is mainstream," as Ruhl puts it. But like the emotional and sexual repression of the Victorian era, pornography is an extreme. A more accurate picture of the "mainstream" are the millions of younger potential theater-goers who have grown up with American Pie, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Juno. For them, I fear, Ruhl's play is going to seem like so much whining by so many confused old people, who probably shouldn't be thinking so much about sex in the first place.
Worse than the cartoon personalities of the lead actors is the relationship between the play's white female characters and its solitary black one. Consider this on-stage geometry: In one corner is Catherine, who recently bore a child but cannot produce any milk. Sitting next to her is her husband's female patient, Sabrina Daldry (Maria Dizzia), who cannot bear a child. Opposite them is Elizabeth (Melle Powers), Sabrina's black housekeeper who a) has just lost a baby so has plenty of milk to spare for Catherine's daughter, b) manages to hold down a job despite her recent loss and two kids at home, c) has a loving husband who is not afraid to express himself emotionally and d) is the only one of the bunch who can recognize an orgasm when it's described to her in dripping detail because she's the only one of them who has actually had one during "relations" with her husband. In fact, she's so clear-eyed that she even understands that when it comes to the performance of one's marital duties with one's husband, orgasms are not always a sure thing. No, these wealthy white chicks don't stand a chance against this black earth mama, who's wise beyond her station in life and class. I understand that Ruhl is using Elizabeth to make certain points, but the over-reaching near-deification of the character had a racial edge to it that made me squirm.
Much has been written about Sarah Ruhl's light touch, and how her lightness should not be misinterpreted as lightweight. Indeed Ruhl's wordplay is often hilarious and sharp precisely because her ear for charming sentiments expressed with wit and simplicity is so keen. I won't give away the set up, but I loved the way Cabell's Catherine realized that she might not know what kind of person she is because she has never had to decide whether or not to carry an umbrella. The play has lots of that sort of thing but ultimately, In The Next Room (or the vibrator play), from its self-conscious title to its thinly drawn characters, feels as fluffy as one of the bustles in one of Catherine's skirts. With the exception of Dr. Givings, the play's male characters are mere props used by the women to move the plot along before they are tossed aside. Even the female players are relieved of their duties when deemed no longer of use. For example, just when we think we are going to get a moment of truth between the doctor's assistant Annie (Stacy Ross) and Sabrina, Ruhl pulls the melodramatic we-must-never-see-each-other-again card, and that's that.
All of which made the illumination between the principals at the end feel so artificial, however lovely the staging or heartfelt the acting. I don't believe for a second that the stiff doctor could turn on a dime from Monty Python stereotype to free sprit lying naked in the snow in the moonlight, and based on the character we spend some two hours with, I definitely don't understand how Catherine could have been the one to lead him there. "I like plays that have revelations in the moment, where emotions transform almost inexplicably," says Ruhl in the program. I like magical realism, or whatever you want to call it, too, but this play is so grounded in historical fact, time and setting that the dislocation at its end felt like the Plan B solution of an obviously gifted writer using the tricks of her trade to meet a tough deadline.
In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) runs through March 15, 2009 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. For tickets and information, visit berkeleyrep.org.