BWW Reviews: IN THE NEXT ROOM Well Deserving of the Buzz
I'm a sucker for plays that are so multifaceted that I feel I can't do them justice in a review. In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, now playing at ZACH Theatre, is without a doubt one of those plays. The comedy, written by Sarah Ruhl, is wonderful but exceedingly difficult to describe. It's funny but poignant, humorous but emotional, modern and old-fashioned.
Since I can't find the right words to describe the show, I'd love to just say, "Go buy tickets," but a three word review is never appropriate, let alone for this amazing production.
As the second half of the title suggests, In the Next Room is about a vibrator, though not as you would expect. Ruhl's brilliant play explores love and our need for human connection by showing us a glimpse at the early days of the vibrator. Surprisingly, the vibrator was one of the first electric devices. Patented in the 1880s, the vibrator was initially used by doctors to treat "hysteria" in women, an affliction which caused faintness, nervousness, sexual desire, insomnia, depression, and a multitude of other issues. Doctors of the Victorian Age believed that "hysteria" was caused by a buildup of fluid in the ovaries, and massaging the genitals with a vibrator would release the toxic fluids, thereby treating the "disease."
Ruhl's play concerns Dr. Givings (Craig Mungavin) who firmly believes in the revolutionary, scientific techniques provided by the vibrator. As he treats his patients in his home office, his inquisitive wife is left wondering what's going on in the next room. Ruhl's text is remarkable for many reasons. She's able to create fully realized and completely sympathetic characters (we even feel for the misguided Dr. Givings), captures the straight-laced demeanor of Victorian society, and manages to say something profound about our reliance on technology and our struggles to connect with one another. Moreover, despite the subject matter she never goes for the obvious or lewd joke. This may be the only vibrator play you'd be comfortable viewing with your mother.
Director Sarah Rasmussen, who served as Assistant Director on the play's Broadway production, clearly knows and understands the material. Ruhl's text has a very subtle rhythm to it. It moves abruptly from comedy to drama and back again, and Rasmussen is able to make those transitions swiftly and organically. She also understands, as Ruhl does as well, that Victorian women would never talk about their pain. Some of the most powerful moments in the play are silent ones in which the characters clearly reflect on their anguish without saying a word.
Rasmussen also has an astonishingly talented creative team at her disposal. Propmaster Scott Groh provides the show with some very well designed replicas of antique medical devices, and the work of set and costume designer Moria Sine Clinton is exceptional. The set is exquisitely detailed and provides a wonderful surprise in the final moments of the show, but the costumes are what audiences will remember most. As many scenes involve women undressing in the doctor's office, Clinton's opted for total authenticity in every costume piece. There are no zippers or other modern touches. Everything is completely period appropriate, and just seeing the time it takes for the actresses to get in and out of their multiple layers of clothing greatly enhances the show.
To top it off, In the Next Room features an incomparable seven person cast. Irene White is wonderful as Annie, Dr. Givings' quiet but friendly nurse. Craig Mungavin manages to create a sympathetic and even vulnerable character out of the reserved, stoic, and reasonable Dr. Givings. Matthew Redden gives a charming performance as the artistic Mr. Irving. Michelle Alexander, who we saw ham it up as Gary Coleman in Austin Theatre Project's Avenue Q, proves to be a chameleon with the understated but powerful performance she gives here, and Michael Ferstenfeld is amusing as the jovial husband of one of Dr. Giving's patients.
As great as the entire cast is, there are two among them that I feel audiences will talk about the most. As the cold, repressed Sabrina, Amy Downing will make you laugh till it hurts. Her first encounter with the titular contraption is riotously funny. But Downing is more than capable of more emotional moments as well. At one point, her character delivers a monologue in which she praises her husband's discretion and delicateness in the bedroom, all the while describing the unromantic, impersonal way in which he makes love to her (I don't want to spoil all the details, but let's just say they don't do it with the lights on). It's a moment in which the character wants to vent all of her frustrations but knows that the rules of etiquette in Victorian society would never allow it, and it's a moment that Downing plays with subtlety and finesse.
Rounding out the cast is Jill Blackwood, who recently won the Austin Critics' Table's John Bustin Award for "Conspicuous Versatility." The Critics' Table hit the nail on the head; I'm beginning to think that Jill Blackwood and "conspicuous versatility" are synonymous. Recently seen as the tragic Fantine in ZACH's production of Les Miserables, Blackwood gives an enthralling performance as Dr. Givings's free-spirited wife, Catherine. She's energetic, a bit daffy, and wildly inquisitive, the complete opposite of the stiff Sabrina. And while, like Downing, Blackwood nails the comedic moments, she's just as successful when she gets to show her character's vulnerability and desire to connect with her aloof and distant husband.
For anyone who has any hysterical symptoms (and considering the laundry list of symptoms, let's assume you're afflicted), I easily prescribe In the Next Room, or the vibrator play. This is a must see for any theater lover.
NOTE: Includes brief male nudity.
IN THE NEXT ROOM, OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY plays ZACH Theatre at 202 South Lamar - Austin, TX 78704 now thru February 23rd. Performances are Wednesday thru Sunday at 7:30pm with additional performances on Saturday and Sunday at 2:30pm. Tickets are $45-$75. For tickets and information, visit www.zachtheatre.org