'In the Next Room, or The

Victorian repression gets a rude poke in this idiosyncratic rumination on women's sexual selves.

Victorian repression gets a rude poke in Sarah Ruhl’s typically idiosyncratic rumination on women’s struggle to understand and explore their sexual selves, “In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play.” While the signature 19th century ailment being treated is “hysteria,” the chief weakness is the bipolar disorder of the inconsistent second act, which shifts uncertainly between serious developments and the more farcical business of romantic cross-currents. But there are so many lingering moments of emotional truth, and even more of daring comedy, that the play amuses and charms even if it doesn’t quite satisfy.

While this is a less fanciful work than Ruhl’s other New York outings to date, “The Clean House,” “Eurydice” and “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” the playwright’s starting point is anything but conventional.

She returns to a time soon after the advent of electricity, before the handy titular appliance acquired sexual associations. Vibrators were marketed alongside vacuum cleaners; used by physicians to induce “paroxysms” in female — and some male — patients, suffering from neurosis or depression, at that time lumped under the catchall of “hysteria.”

The medic wielding the wand here is Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris), a solicitous man of science who is kind but somewhat formal with his wife (Laura Benanti), a giddy beauty with an un-Victorian habit of saying whatever pops into her head.

“How extraordinary,” says Mrs. Givings when she sneaks a peek at the boxy contraption. “It looks like a farming tool. Where do you put it?”

Her curiosity is further stoked by her deepening acquaintance with Mrs. Daldry (Maria Dizzia), a patient whose debilitating condition — she’s hypersensitive to light, cold and color, but unresponsive to the touch of her impatient husband (Thomas Jay Ryan) — shows marked improvement after a few jolts of electricity. Mrs. Daldry also responds to the gentle care of Dr. Givings’ assistant Annie (Wendy Rich Stetson), suggesting her marital malaise is rooted elsewhere.

Les Waters, who first directed the play at Berkeley Rep, has an agreeably light touch that allows the comedy to milk every ounce of naughtiness without tipping over into puerility.

The treatment scenes in particular benefit from staging that underlines the clinical nature of the approach while slyly tickling the audience’s more contemporary attitudes toward sexuality and manual stimulation. And the scene in which Mrs. Givings and Mrs. Daldry turn into complicitous, giggling schoolgirls when they get their illicit hands on the doc’s equipment is a riot.

Annie Smart’s chintzy two-room set cleverly divides the action between drawing room and surgery, with the untapped well of feeling being unleashed in the doctor’s office soon spilling out to erode the propriety of the home beyond that terribly serious inner sanctum. David Zinn’s detailed period costumes add to the sense of a period-appropriate comedy of manners about an inappropriate subject.

It’s when the play inches into more sober territory that it becomes lumpy. Benanti is a lovely comic actress and the guileless directness she brings to Mrs. Givings makes the character immensely likable, her too-contemporary delivery somewhat justified by her lack of a filter. But Ruhl has failed to foreshadow her deep dissatisfaction with her husband’s remoteness, so when those feelings surface, they seem inorganic to the prevailing tone.

Mrs. Givings’ nagging sense of inadequacy over not being able to feed her newborn baby contributes more successfully to the play’s exploration of women’s identity issues. But the Givings’ employment of a black wet nurse (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) introduces a character who seems to belong in another play. This is especially bothersome in a speech about loss and resentment that’s plangent and beautiful but ill-fitting. And it seems patronizing to have the black domestic be the one to enlighten the ladies that the frisson they’re feeling in the doctor’s office should be part of marital relations.

But Ruhl has a gift for unexpected moments of stirring poetry, and there are a number of them here, such as a bold but delicate demonstration of affection between Annie and Mrs. Daldry. Even the cloying conclusion, in which Mrs. Givings gently coaxes her husband toward the passionate spontaneity she requires in their marriage, has a beguiling lyrical quality.

Original as it is, all this doesn’t gel into a cohesive tone. The play’s more soulful reflections about love, marriage and men’s difficulty in understanding women’s needs clash against the comedy, which in the second act shifts to romantic entanglements (unlikely infatuations spring up to increasingly tiresome effect) and a strained succession of inopportune entrances and exits.

The fine cast keeps it engrossing, however, with all but Bernstine acting in a heightened theatrical style that underlines the distinctiveness of Ruhl’s voice.

Benanti’s daffy vulnerability is nicely paired with Cerveris’ sweet-natured impassivity. His bafflement, which turns to mild anger, when Mrs. Givings suggests he kiss her during treatment is both funny and touching.

Chandler Williams injects a buoyant, bohemian spirit in act two as an artist seeking a cure for his romantic ache. And he’s nothing if not game — submitting to a prostate massage is not generally part of the classical repertoire.

But the most delectable turn comes from Dizzia, in a series of preposterous hats that make mockery of Mrs. Daldry’s self-dramatizing melancholia. Her journey from stifled unhappiness to something approaching self-awareness is one of the chief rewards of this intriguing but imperfect play.

In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play

Lyceum Theater; 899 seats; $96.50 top

Production

A Lincoln Center Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Les Waters.

Creative

Sets, Annie Smart; costumes, David Zinn; lighting, Russell H. Champa; original music, Jonathan Bell; sound, Bray Poor; production stage manager, Roy Harris. Opened Nov. 19, 2009. Reviewed Nov. 13. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Mrs. Givings - Laura Benanti Dr. Givings - Michael Cerveris Annie - Wendy Rich Stetson Mr. Daldry - Thomas Jay Ryan Mrs. Daldry - Maria Dizzia Elizabeth - Quincy Tyler Bernstine Leo Irving - Chandler Williams

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