'The Vibrator Play': Why Yes, It Is About Exactly That

Maria Dizzia, Michael Cerveris and Laura Benanti in 'In The Next Room, or the Vibrator Play' i i

Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris, center) regularly treats female patients like Mrs. Daldry (Maria Dizzia) for "hysteria" by inducing a "paroxysm" — what we would call an orgasm nowadays. Once accomplished by hand, the job has been made easier at the outset of Sarah Ruhl's comedy In The Next Room by the invention of the electromechanical vibrator. Joan Marcus hide caption

itoggle caption Joan Marcus
Maria Dizzia, Michael Cerveris and Laura Benanti in 'In The Next Room, or the Vibrator Play'

Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris, center) regularly treats female patients like Mrs. Daldry (Maria Dizzia) for "hysteria" by inducing a "paroxysm" — what we would call an orgasm nowadays. Once accomplished by hand, the job has been made easier at the outset of Sarah Ruhl's comedy In The Next Room by the invention of the electromechanical vibrator.

Joan Marcus

The title of her latest comedy may be a little titillating, but playwright Sarah Ruhl wants you to know one thing right upfront:

"A lot of it happens under a sheet."

Yes, Ruhl's impish new play, which opened Nov. 19 at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre, is in fact about sexuality. But it's just as much about intimacy, she says. And about marriage.

"Its very discreet," Ruhl confesses. "People hoping for something lurid or campy might be disappointed."

Ruhl began writing In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play after she read a book — called The Technology of Orgasm — that described how 19th century doctors treated women diagnosed with "hysteria" by using a curious new electrical device.

Actress Maria Dizzia, who plays a patient named Mrs. Daldry, says hysteria — an exclusively female illness, its name derived from the Greek word for "uterus" — was something of a catchall condition.

"It was irritability, it was sleeplessness, it was anger, it was feeling solemnity," Dizzia says. Any behavior beyond the prescribed feminine ideal — "anything that was pretty much unacceptable to the people around you."

In one of the play's scenes, Dr. Givings (actor Michael Cerveris) describes the cause of hysterical symptoms as "congestion in your womb," explaining that "if we can release some of that congestion and invite the juices downwards, your health will be restored."

Earlier generations of doctors, according to the history books, had to make do with manual methods to achieve such a release. With the advent of electricity, medical science discovered new options.

Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Laura Benanti in 'In The Next Room, or the Vibrator Play' i i

When Mrs. Givings (Laura Benanti, right) discovers she can't nurse her child, she hires another woman (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) as wet nurse. With its treatment of that intimate service and the medicalization of sexuality in her husband's practice, Ruhl's play questions how we sometimes divide body from spirit. Joan Marcus hide caption

itoggle caption Joan Marcus
Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Laura Benanti in 'In The Next Room, or the Vibrator Play'

When Mrs. Givings (Laura Benanti, right) discovers she can't nurse her child, she hires another woman (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) as wet nurse. With its treatment of that intimate service and the medicalization of sexuality in her husband's practice, Ruhl's play questions how we sometimes divide body from spirit.

Joan Marcus

Is That What That Is?

The stage set features two Victorian rooms — on one side, Dr. Givings' exam room, where he administers his treatments, and on the other side a parlor, where his wife wonders what's going on in the next room. She's heard the noises. She's seen how calm and happy Mrs. Daldry is when she exits.

She just hasn't had any personal experiences that would help her put two and two together.

"These are sounds, as sad as it may be, that she's never heard before — never from herself," explains Laura Benanti, the actress playing Mrs. Givings.

Ruhl says she was fascinated with the idea that privileged women could be so ignorant about their own bodies.

"I loved the innocence of it, the not-knowingness of it ... having women try to describe, in physical terms, what an orgasm was without having the terminology," she says. Like, not knowing, 'Oh, that's an orgasm!'"

Questions Of Intimacy

Ruhl wrote In the Next Room while she was nursing her own child, and she found herself interested in another topic that might be nearly as foreign as Dr. Givings' therapies to a contemporary audience — the history of wet nursing. In the play, Mrs. Givings finds herself unable to produce enough milk to nurse her baby, so she and the doctor hire a young African-American woman to breast-feed the child.

In addressing both topics, Ruhl centers her play on "how we separate out bodily functions and labor and love." She's intrigued, she explains, by "this notion of paying someone to do something that, ideally, one does for one's own child — or paying a doctor for the sexual treatment that ideally your partner is giving you in a more intimate way. So it's all these questions of intimacy."

Everyone Laughs, But For Different Reasons

Those questions ultimately force the doctor and his wife to examine their own relationship with naked honesty. Benanti says that while much of Ruhl's writing is humorous, there's a real core of feeling underneath.

"She's able to achieve so many different forms of laughter," Benanti says. "The laughter of being uncomfortable, the laughter of surprise, the laughter of knowing, the laughter of anticipating, the laughter of wanting. She kind of hammers the audience with this comedy and then, at the end, they're tenderized."

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