In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play

Vibrator PlayWomen’s bodies, women’s pleasures, the heavily scrutinized relationship between women and the nature and autonomy of their arousal and desire is the object, either directly or indirectly, of countless texts and pieces of media and literature. The notion that women may control or be the source of their own pleasure, or that women may contain multitudes of stimuli that they can engage separate from heteronormative sex has a long standing history of being regarded with near-flabbergasted dismissal. The origins of autonomous female pleasure, which of course are long-standing but rarely explored properly, and the essence of female arousal is at the core of Sarah Ruhl’s 2009 In the Next Room (The Vibrator Play), which uses female pleasure and the inadvertent creation of the vibrator as a fulcrum for discussing larger social and behavioral issues. The play uses the repressive, austere Victorian social mores and behavioral conditions as mechanisms of evaluating the origins of the vibrator within the greater contexts of class, gender and social dynamics.

Throughline Theatre Company’s production of In the Next Room, which is electrified by the meticulous direction of Abigail Lis-Perlis, has put forth an admirable restaging of Sarah Ruhl’s multifaceted vibrator dramaturgical aubade. The play, which benefits from a masterful use of very limited space, takes place primarily in a series of small rooms in a haughty Victorian home of a well-intentioned if not slow-witted physician, Dr. Givings and his wife Catherine. The stage design highlights the fixation with the apparatus created by Dr. Givings intended to “release juices” inside of women that cause stress and impedes fertility and pregnancy. Of course, the apparatus designed is effectively a cumbersome vibrator, and much of the clunky comedy of the show centers around Dr. Givings’ over-intellectual misconstrual of his apparatus’ actual use of a clitoral stimulus for the women he uses it on.

Perhaps if the shows only focus was this confusion and disparity between men’s conception of women’s pleasure versus the actuality and their surreptitious enthrallment with this pleasure, In the Next Room would have been a bit more even-footed. While the performances are consistent and generally convincing—the most deliberately impassioned and extremely vivacious being Moira Quigley as Catherine Givings, whose dissatisfaction with her husband’s ineptitude and her own biology is radiantly palpable—the show often reads as too discombobulated or heavy handed. There are at least three micro-narratives happening simultaneously with the various central characters that demand the same level of audience involvement and attention. Some of these micro-narratives, like the burgeoning romance between two women (one of Dr. Givings’ patients and his female nurse/house servant), could have been compelling stories on their own, yet do not get to flourish properly because of helter-skelter narrative construction.

Although the play is satisfying in portraying a discovery and embracing of (somewhat) autonomous female pleasure in an era that such a thing was unfathomable, In the Next Room, has lingering infiltrations of heteronormativity and male-centrism. The entire story is premised on the notion that men are too intellectual and removed to understand the intuitiveness and inchoate physicality of female desire and pleasure. Though this is intriguing, it creates a clear demarcation between women and men that does nothing to challenge stereotypes. While an incredibly enjoyable play with impressive performances, the show at times comes off as too out of touch with the edginess it purports to depict.

In the Next Room continues at the Henry Heymann Theatre through June 24. For tickets and more information, click here.