A Review

The Magic Box

By R. J. Donovan

Things are all a-tingle over at the Calderwood Pavilion as SpeakEasy Stage Company kicks off its 20th Anniversary season with Sarah Ruhl's "In The Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)." The Victorian comedy was both a Pulitzer Prize finalist as well as a Tony Award nominee for Best Play.

It's the dawn of a new age and Thomas Edison has invented the electric light bulb.  In turn, Dr. Givings (an appropriately named character once you know the plotline) has taken on this new technology to employ a throbbing electrical device designed to clear pesky congestion in women's wombs. Prior to this, physicians were producing the same results manually. (Can you imagine how enthusiasm would grow for our national health care bill if this were still an option?)

The toe-curling response was known as a "paroxysm" -- i.e., a good old-fashioned orgasm. No one is thinking anything sexual about this new device, because we're in Victorian times after all, and sex is merely a necessary means to procreation. Not wanting to leave anyone out, the good doctor has also adapted the treatment to assist men, moving a little further back in the crotch area to jump start the prostate.

The juxtaposition of the bustles, corsets and provincial pinchy-ness with the dealings under the covers makes it all the more comical.

Meanwhile, the good doctor's wife, Catherine (Anne Gottlieb, at left) , is feeling a bit stifled herself. She's lonely, isolated and curious about what goes on in her husband's home "operating theater." She's also got a new baby, but is unable to nurse. A wet nurse, a neighboring black servant who's recently lost a child, comes to the rescue. However, when the nurse begins to bond with the child, Catherine's sense of anxiety only grows. 

Add a Bohemian (if blocked) artist, a helpful midwife, a frigid woman and her upright husband and you've got a show. As unusual as the subject matter may sound for presentation on stage (the two older women next to me never returned after intermission), it's all done with tact and great humor. There's nothing pornographic here. You never see much more than a delicately placed hand beneath the petticoats.  However, every time the doctor turns on his machine, it hums and jolts like something out of a Frankenstein flick.

Oh, and all of this is based on historic fact.

Things get off to a comical start when the house lights flicker and flash as the play begins. The first act is quite funny while the second swerves to take a more serious route. The change in pace and tone makes the second half plod a bit. And while it all ends on a sweet human note (with a bit of nudity, although not the kind you might expect), the second half does drag in its effort to get to the finish line.

The story is set in a spa outside New York City in the 1880s. This was a time when sex -- missionary position only, please -- was endured more than enjoyed.  In fact, the ladies of "The Next Room" are quite discombobulated when it's suggested that their husbands might actually help them achieve the same affects as the machinery.

Dealing with jealousy, loneliness, motherhood and race, Sarah Ruhl's script is funny, but the real humor comes via the performances. And in that respect, Marianna Bassham (far left) shines as Mrs. Daldry, the frigid wife who slowly learns what her body can do. 

Sensitive to light, cold and subjected to headaches by the color green, she is almost unable to go on. Until she experiences what the doctor ordered.  Simulating an orgasm on stage can come off as trite and phony. However, Mrs. Daldry's visits to the doctor's office get funnier and funnier as she becomes addicted to the treatments. Bassham plays the role with a very delicate touch, carefully balancing innocence with a whimsical curiosity.

Bassham's initial entrance, severely swaddled all in black, is funny all by itself thanks to costume designer Gail Astrid Buckley.  As Mrs. Daldry loosens up, so to speak, her outfits come to reflect her blossoming mood. (On that note, Buckley has created a fine series of richly detailed outfits for both Bassham and Anne Gottlieb as Catherine.)

Gottlieb sketches a lovely portrait of a wife's frustration, coupled with a sense of shortcoming at being unable to provide for her child as nature intended.  She undergoes a liberation when she and Mrs. Daldry force their way into her husband's office and like two little schoolgirls, playfully explore the mysteries of the machinery on their own.

As Dr. Givings, Derry Woodhouse (left) is gentle, kind and comforting while adding an uptight air to the proceedings. He applies more technique to his patients than his own wife, despite his devotion to the former and his unquestioning love for the latter. He captures the Victorian essence of the character very nicely.

Scott Edmiston directs, keeping the action on point. He also creates a lovely tableaux where the four women, each isolated in her own way, are simply listening to music. No one moves, and yet the moment is quite moving in itself.

Designer Susan Zeeman Rogers rakes her Victorian set slightly, tilting the home parlor to the right and the home office to the left, perhaps suggesting the chasm between the emotions of the two.

The crack in the script comes in the way Ruhl continues to bring characters back into the doctor's office. People forget hats, people forget gloves, people forget scarves. One would think Victorian folk barely made it into the new century wearing anything at all. It might lend itself to a door-slamming French farce, but here it comes off as noticeably forced and contrived. 

It's also a bit odd that Ruhl makes a point of having the doctor instruct his wife that only Annie, his professional midwife, is to answer the door and greet patients, when, in fact, Annie only answers the door once. All the other arrivals, and there are plenty of them, are handled by his wife.

While it takes a while to get there, the evening finishes on a lovely, silent moment with snow representing the purity of the human heart.  Ultimately, the machinery pales in comparison when true intimacy consumes the soul and illuminates the darkness.

"In The Next Room (or the Vibrator Play,)" from SpeakEasy Stage Company, is at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center For The Arts, 527 Tremont Street, through October 16. 617-933-8600.

Production photos: Stratton McCrady

-- OnStage Boston




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