Review: ‘In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play’ at Silver Spring Stage

When I think of how the scientific community has historically addressed the scourge of feminine hysteria, I tend to think of electro-shock treatments – those relics of masculine control over the female body chronicled in countless mid-century films about women (often wrongfully) committed to insane asylums. But a less well-known (and certainly more effective) treatment for the “sick” woman living in the era of corsets and cage skirts also conspicuously makes use of electricity. That’s right folks, the vibrator has been around longer than you might’ve suspected – and the person behind the miracle auto-erotic invention was, ironically, a sexually awkward white guy. Though he’d prefer the term “man of science.”

The cast of 'In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play' at Silver Spring Stage. Photo by Harvey Levine.
The cast of ‘In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play’ at Silver Spring Stage. Photo by Harvey Levine.

In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play takes this disconnect as its starting point, probing the lapses in communication between men and women in their quest for fulfillment, sexual or otherwise, as well as the anxieties (and misconceptions) surrounding motherhood and married life. Directed by Jen Katz, Silver Spring Stage’s rendition of Sarah Ruhl’s 2005 Tony-nominated play boasts a solid cast with respectable command of Ruhl’s 19th-century repartee.

Dr. Givings (Matt J. Bannister) is a scientist with a relatively successful in-home practice tending to women (and the occasional man) that demonstrate symptoms of hysteria. It’s not certain what “hysteria” actually means, but we know that it leaves its victims uninspired, unenergetic, and sensitive to light and cold. While the diagnosis laughably lays blame on an accumulation of liquid in the womb, the cure – a prototype vibrator fashioned by Givings himself – sure seems to yield productive results!

When a Mr. Dick Daldry (Jim Adams) starts bringing his puritanical wife, Sabrina Daldry (Juliet Lloyd) in for daily treatment, Mrs. Catherine Givings (Emily Gilson) strikes a friendship with the ailing Mrs. Daldry that brings her closer to understanding what the magical vibrator induces, and how it is technically a substitute for a more, let’s call it involved, practice.

Gilson is for all intents and purposes the lead here, as the play focuses primarily on the loneliness and dissatisfaction of her buoyant Mrs. Givings. Seemingly condemned to a life with the inattentive and emotionally inept doctor, Catherine is a sociable woman, and a romantic at heart. For better or worse, she relies on the company of her husband’s patients as they pass through her effeminate parlor room to get to the doctor’s sterile examination room, which leads to some sticky scenarios with Mr. Daldry and a libertine artist by the name of Leo Irving (Joshuah Laird). Gilson is convincing as the vivacious Mrs. Givings, straddling the line between the confidence and liveliness her character exudes, while still giving tangible expression to her desperation.

Meanwhile, Bannister is well-cast as the prim and clueless Dr. Givings, whose inability to see sexual pleasure even as it’s splayed out graphically before his eyes is a middle finger to sexually illiterate men everywhere. Lloyd is also delightful as the repressed Mrs. Daldry, though her standout moments are always on the examination table, shuffling around uncomfortably in her Victorian undergarments one moment, howling with pleasure the next as Annie, the nurse (an amusingly stoic Erica Smith) gives her the “manual” treatment.

The cast of 'In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play.' Photo by Harvey Levine.
The cast of ‘In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play.’ Photo by Harvey Levine.

Given the audience seating arrangements and the size of the Silver Spring stage, the two-room setup, unfortunately, elicits some visual and audio problems. Often backs were turned and voices muffled, and while the set design by Jeff Asjes succeeded in the transporting final scene, the stage felt underwhelming with its rickety wooden dividers and muted colors not bold enough on either side to appropriately express the gendered contrast between the two spaces.

“Stop stroking the cat, you might cause a fire!” says Dr. Givings. “It’s like a piece of dead wood without being played!” urges Mrs. Givings to the bashful amateur pianist, Mrs. Daldry. Ruhl’s script abounds in sexual puns, which the cast manages to highlight for the most part. Though some of Ruhl’s seamlessly embedded little jokes seem to slide past unnoticed with unaffected delivery – which begs the question of whether the performers, or merely the audience in question, bypassed these naughty bits.

The second half of the play sees the entry of Laird’s Leo, and the awakening of a scene-stealing Jacqueline Youm’s Elizabeth, a black woman still grieving the death of her third child as she serves as wet nurse to Mrs. Givings’ baby daughter. Laird brings a comic energy to the production that matches the narrative acceleration of Mrs. Givings’ erotic discoveries, and Youm impresses with a heartbreaking monologue that broadens the critical dimensions of the play to include a racial and class component. Together the two spike the humorous, but otherwise plain period dramedy with charm and pizzazz thanks to Laird, and gravitas and intensity thanks to Youm.

Despite some technicalities that proved rough around the edges, it’s hard not to relish a script that delights so liberally with orgasms aplenty (fabricated by not one, but three members of the cast). Ultimately, I found myself effortlessly engaged with the performance, and I’m certain many will feel the same way. Silver Spring Stage’s production of The Vibrator Play isn’t groundbreaking, but it makes for a cheeky, fun evening at the theater.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

In The Next Room, or the Vibrator Play plays through March 16, 2019, at Silver Spring Stage, 10145 Colesville Rd, Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call 301-593-6036, or go online.

Complete Cast:
Dr. Givings – Matt Bannister
Catherine Givings – Emily Gilson
Sabrina Daldry – Juliet Lloyd
Dick Daldry – Jim Adams
Annie – Erica Smith
Elizabeth – Jacqueline Youm
Leo Irving – Joshuah Laird

1 COMMENT

  1. I think the set design is amazing and an ingenious solution to the unusual stage layout of SSS. I am not familiar with the designer, but interested to see other sets he has created.

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