Sunday, April 14, 2024

Inside the Hilarious Nexus of Pleasure and Medicine

Show up for the vibrators, stay for the life lessons.

That seems to be the structure of Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room, Or the Vibrator Play,” a recent Tony nominee receiving an excellent southeastern premiere at GableStage through June 12. Ruhl was inspired to write the play after reading, among other things, Rachel P. Maines’ “The Technology of Orgasm,” which detailed the invention of the vibrator as a treatment for “hysteria” during the Victorian era by doctors who were apparently unaware of the device’s pleasure possibilities.

The fictional Dr. Givings, played by Jim Ballard at GableStage, is one such physician. While his wife Catherine (Julie Kleiner) is in the next room, struggling to feed her new baby with spoiled breast milk, Dr. Givings is in his unintentionally pervy operating theater, pontificating about the advances of Einstein’s electricity and inserting a power-drill-like instrument into anxious women’s nether regions to clear up “congestion in the womb.” One of the doc’s regular patients is Sabrina Daldry (Irene Adjan), for whom the treatment appears to have worked wonders. Her sex life with husband Mr. Daldry (Stephen G. Anthony) has dwindled, and the electrical therapy has given her a new lease on life – not to mention eliciting repressed same-sex passions after the doctor’s assistant, Annie (Sally Bondi), tries the “manual method” on her.

For much of its admittedly overlong running time – with intermission, the play is nearly two and a half hours – “In the Next Room” is howlingly funny. It’s brought to life through the mechanics of the classical farce, a well-staged symphony of entrances and exits from its seven-piece cast. And, as always, Ruhl’s characters say the strangest things at the strangest times.

GableStage’s set design is exquisite as always, employing its two-tiered stage to visualize both rooms of the house at once. The acting is magnificent all-around, with Bondi and Ballard shining the brightest.

Ruhl is not the first writer to discover bawdy humor hidden under the corset of Victorian propriety, but she’s certainly one of the most intelligent. The more the play progresses, the less it relies on sex humor and the more it takes a scalpel to the emotional wounds festering in paternalistic marital hierarchies (Note that the husbands in the play are referred only by the titles and surnames, and all the women are referred to on a first-name basis). But don’t expect an ethical or moral lecture, thank goodness; if this is feminism, feminism has never been this fun.

GableStage is at 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. Tickets are $37.50 to $47.50. Call 305/449-1119 or visit www.gablestage.org.

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