Intimacy Battles Electricity in ‘In The Next Room’ at Long Beach Playhouse

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The female orgasm used to be considered (and sadly still is to many) one of the greatest mysteries in the universe. In fact, in western society’s not so distant past, the female orgasm wasn’t considered at all nor was anything about the female that did not relate to the role of housekeeper, mother, or sex toy. Society may still be patriarchal to a fault, but it’s got nothing on the late 1800s where the action for In The Next Room takes place.

Sarah Ruhl‘s brilliant adult comedy (which premiered in 2009 and was a finalist for both a Tony and a Pulitzer for best play) is set in a resort town outside of New York City just after the invention of electricity. At the time, doctors were known to treat females for “hysteria,” an antiquated diagnosis for women who would show signs of wild irritability and manic mood swings, by using newly invented vibrators to induce orgasms in their patients. As I mentioned before, at this time in history, the female orgasm was not something that modern science or society knew existed, let alone understood. 

Vibrator-Play-Photo-7This clinical treatment of “hysteria” proved as detached from any sort of intimacy as cleaning up after a dog on a walk. The gradual understanding of the relationship between intimacy and orgasm that serves as the liberating core of this play also serves as a spearhead for many other themes this work touches on: science vs. romanticism, gender roles, sexism, racism and the relationship between the natural and artificial are all issues that get their due here.

This may sound like In The Next Room is a very serious play, and in some ways, it is. With characters that are three-dimensional and conflicted in ways we can all relate to, one might guess that In the Next Room is a drama. Luckily—magically even—this play is actually a comedy and a rare, humane, and insightful one at that. Currently in an intimate production at The Long Beach Playhouse, it is given a nuanced, subtle and moving mounting.

The entirety of the action—aside from the play’s last few moments—takes place in the living room and “the next room” (the doctor’s operating office) in the home of Dr. and Mrs. Givings. 

Dr. Givings (Don Schlossman) is a kind man and a well-respected doctor, with a deep love and obsession for all things scientific and newly electric. His wife Catherine (Kate Woodruff) is a new mother with a limited flow of breast milk for her newborn child. Feeling insufficient as a mother and confined to the living room of her own home, she grows increasingly fascinated and deeply intrigued by the patients that come to her husband feeling lost and leave his office feeling fulfilled. Totally unaware of the treatments that take place on her husband’s operating table and feeling deeply un-fulfilled herself, she plots to break into the doctor’s office. 

With the help of one of the patients he is treating who has recently become a her new friend,  Catherine attempts to discover why her husband won’t perform his life altering treatment on his own wife. In the process, Catherine begins to see connections between the very treatments that her husband performs and the intimacy lacking from her and the doctor’s own personal lives.

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In The Next Room kicks off the Studio Theater’s season at The Playhouse and is a reminder of why this space is so special. The Studio usually takes on more progressive and provocative choices than its main-stage big sister downstairs, and this play proves again why this is my favorite of The Playhouse’s two stages. Though by no means obscene or raunchy, the subject matter of the play is controversial in the most conventional definition of the term. It is also not traditional community theater fare. That The Playhouse is brave enough to present this work and give it a competent production is alone cause for applause. That it succeeds in ultimately being a touching and transcendent experience is even more of one.

The cast is uniformly good with many of the actors reaching moments of greatness. 

All of the women are fantastic. Kate Woodruff’s Catherine is nuanced, energetic, and insightful. It is a brave and empathetic performance that on its own would be worth the price of a ticket. That all of the other females in the cast aren’t out-shown by her star performance is a testament to all of their hard work.

Vibrator-Play-Preview-Photo-1Sophie Mura plays Sabrina Daldry, a new patient at the opening of the play, and her transformation from a frail, emaciated being to the glowing, exuberant and curious young woman she becomes over the course of her treatment is magical to watch. Sophie’s piano playing is also very good and the scene in the Giving’s living room between her and Annie (Dr. Giving’s assistant) played with astonishing reserve by Stephanie Schulz, is heartbreaking and unforgettable.

Liliana Carrillo plays the wet nurse the Givings hire to breastfeed their baby and she gives the play a necessary anchor to the world outside of the Giving’s household. Mrs. Carrillo delivers a monologue in the second act about her deceased son that sends shivers down the spine and is deeply convincing and believable in her role.

The men here are all more than serviceable but aside from Don Schlossman as Dr. Givings, none of them reach the heights that the females in this production do. I am aware that this is also due to the writing and structure of the play, but it must be said nonetheless.

Don Schlossman comes the farthest of the men here in a portrayal of Dr. Givings that is as conflicted as it is tender. His enthusiasm for science and confusion towards his wife’s needs create a complex character that is also believable. When his guard finally comes down at the play’s conclusion, it becomes apparent how convincing his performance has been. To see how him and his wife begin to communicate, even though its premise borders on contrivance, is touching and inspiring.

Scott T. Finn is funny and fey as Dr. Givings one male patient, an artist and bohemian named Leo Irving, but believing he would ever sleep with a woman, let alone countless numbers of them is a feat to say the least. His wig (not to his fault) could also use a combing.

Bob Fetes as Mr. Daldry is the most restrained I’ve seen him in any show at the playhouse, a credit to both his work and the directors.

Speaking of the director, Robert Craig’s work here is excellent. The pace, tone and balance of all the play’s elements are on point. Besides the slight distractions of Leo Irving, which is not enough to derail the play’s potency, there is little at all I can say against Mr. Craig’s work here. It takes a deep understanding of this play to make an intimate production of this show succeed and all of his work pays off marvelously.

The same can be said for the rest of the production team, but especially for the set design of Andrew Vonderschmitt who creates a believable and immersive environment with the limited space and means of The Studio theater. The breaking away of the set’s walls at the end are a simple but beautiful bit of theater magic, elevating the aforementioned contrived ending into something metaphorical and beautiful.

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Throughout In The Next Room, much is made of the transition from candle lighting to that of electric lighting, and from that of manual work to the use of machines. Though technological advances may appear to illuminate things with greater ease and velocity, understanding the implications of these new technologies and their lasting effects is always left for time to tell.

There are hopes that each advancement in technology will bring us closer to a primal understanding of ourselves and the ways in which we interact and communicate with each other. 

In The Next Room or The Vibrator Play positively suggests that this may very well be the case. And what better medium than that of the theater, in itself always at the cusp of the ancient and the modern, the technological and the human, for these themes to be examined and celebrated?

In The Next Room or The Vibrator Play ends its run at The Long Beach Playhouse, located at 5021 E. Anaheim Street, until May 31.

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