'The Vibrator Play': Why Yes, It Is About Exactly That Any short list of important young American playwrights would have to include Sarah Ruhl, who at age 35 has had work performed at major theaters around the country. She made her Broadway debut Nov. 19, with a period drama called In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play. But as Jeff Lunden reports, it's as much about intimacy and honesty as about sexuality.

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

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Any short list of promising young American playwrights would have to include Sarah Ruhl. At the age of 35, she's had her work performed at major theaters around the country and won lots of awards, including the MacArthur Genius Grant. This week, she made her Broadway debut to rave reviews with a period drama set at the end of the 19th century called �In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play.� Yes, it's about what you think it's about.

Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN: The title may be a little shocking, but Sarah Ruhl wants you to know right upfront�

Ms. SARAH RUHL (Playwright): It's very discreet in its presentation. I mean, I think people hoping for something lurid or campy might be disappointed because a lot of it happens under a sheet. But I think, you know, it's a play very much about sexuality, but it's also about intimacy and marriage as much as it is about that.

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

Actress Maria Dizzia, who plays a patient named Mrs. Daldry, says hysteria was something of a catchall condition.

Ms. MARIA DIZZIA (Actress): It was everything. It was irritability, it was sleeplessness, it was anger, it was, you know, solemnity. It was just anything that was, anything, I think, that was pretty much unacceptable to the people around you.

(Soundbite of play)

Mr. MICHAEL CERVERIS (Actor): (as Dr. Givings) Mrs. Daldry, we are going to produce in you what is called a paroxysm. The congestion in your womb is causing your hysterical symptoms, and if we can release some of that congestion and invite the juices downwards, your health will be restored.

LUNDEN: The stage set features two Victorian rooms: On one side, Dr. Givings' examination room, where he administers his treatment, and on the other side, a parlor where the doctor's 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. Laura Benanti plays the doctor's wife.

Ms. LAURA BENANTI (Actress): These are sounds, as sad as it may be, that she's never heard before. Never from herself - and this is pre-pornography. You know, now we walk around, everybody knows what a woman or a man is supposed to look like, sound like, act like, be like.

(Soundbite of play)

Mr. CERVERIS: (as Dr. Givings) Excuse me.

(Soundbite of knocking)

Mr. CERVERIS: (as Dr. Givings) What is it?

Ms. BENANTI: (as Mrs. Givings) What is that sound? What are you doing?

Mr. CERVERIS: (as Dr. Givings) Electrical therapy, my dear. A very successful session.

Ms. BENANTI: (as Mrs. Givings) I wish to see it.

Mr. CERVERIS: (as Dr. Givings) You would not understand. Leave me my dry, boring science, and I will give you the rest of the world. Besides, you said yourself, my electricity bores you.

Ms. BENANTI: (as Mrs. Givings) I insist on seeing your machine now.

LUNDEN: Playwright Sarah Ruhl says she was fascinated with the idea that privileged women could be so ignorant of their own bodies.

Ms. RUHL: I love the innocence of it. I mean, I love the not knowingness of it, and having women trying to describe in physical terms what an orgasm was without having the terminology, like not knowing, oh, that's an orgasm.

(Soundbite of play)

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (as character) Mrs. Daldry and I have had two experiences of the very same event. Have you ever had this sensation? Either you feel shivers all over your body and you feel like running and your feet get very hot as though you're dancing on devil's coal?

Ms. DIZZIA: (as Mrs. Daldry) Or you see unaccountable patterns of lights, electricity under your eyelids, and your heart races and your legs feel very weak, as though you cannot walk.

Unidentified Woman: (as character) And your face gets suddenly hot like a strange, sudden sunburn.

LUNDEN: Sarah Ruhl wrote "In the Next Room" while she was nursing her own child and found herself interested in another topic, which seems foreign to a contemporary audience - the history of wet nursing.

In the play, Mrs. Givings is unable to produce enough milk to nurse her baby, so she and the doctor hire a young, African-American woman to breastfeed the child.

Ms. RUHL: I think in general in the play, I'm interested in how we separate out bodily functions and labor and love - you know, this notion of paying someone to do something that ideally, you know, one does for one's own child or paying a doctor to pay for the sexual treatment that ideally, your partner is giving you in a more intimate way. So it's all these questions of intimacy.

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

Ms. BENANTI: She's able to achieve so many different forms of laughter - 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.

LUNDEN: "In the Next Room" is currently playing at the Lyceum Theater on Broadway.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

SIMON: You can watch scenes from "In the Next Room" on our Web site, NPR.org.

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