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South Coast Rep's In the Next Room, or the vibrator play Makes for Stimulating Comedy

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Andrew Borba, Libby West and Rebecca Mozo in SCR's 2010 production of In the Next Room or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl. | Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR.


Andrew Borba, Libby West and Rebecca Mozo in SCR's 2010 production of In the Next Room or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl. | Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR.
In 1880s America, the male-dominated medical establishment, in its dubious wisdom, lumped any number of unrelated ailments suffered by women together as “hysteria,” including anything from depression to irritability to light sensitivity. One of the popular treatments for this condition involved electrical vibration being applied to the patient’s groin, which strangely made the patients feel a lot better. The wonders of science. Sarah Ruhl has written an amusing and entertaining, if a bit slight, play about this subject--In the Next Room, or the vibrator play--revealing that science can misinterpret major physiological things sometimes, and also how men and women can be blind to each other’s needs. The play receives a superb production at South Coast Repertory under Casey Stangl’s direction.

Dr. Givings (Andrew Borba) is amazed by the efficacy of the new vibration treatments he administers to his patients, and is fascinated with electricity in general. The treatment seems to work for both sexes, from unhappy wife Sabrina Daldry (Rebecca Mozo) to frustrated artist Leo Irving (Ron Menzel), and everyone is happy. Everyone, that is, except for Givings’ lonely wife Catherine (Kathleen Early), who’s isolated in the spa town. Her husband genially neglects her in the name of science, but she’s more hurt by her inability to produce sufficient milk to feed her newborn baby, and the child’s seeming preference for her new wet nurse, Elizabeth (Tracey A. Leigh). Most of all, Catherine wonders what’s going on in her husband’s locked examination room—what all those moans and screams are about—and one day she picks the lock and begins to upend her world.

Early excels as Catherine, trying to make friends with everyone just to keep her life bearable, and gives a lively and affecting performance that adeptly centers the show. Borba brings empathy and restraint to a role that could come off as either cold or buffoonish, and instead creates a decent man whose enthusiasm for science has temporarily caused him to forget about his enthusiasm for his wife. Mozo is funny and sympathetic as Sabrina, who enjoys frequent treatments, and Menzel exudes energy and charm as Leo. Leigh is appropriately subdued as Elizabeth, who doesn’t feel comfortable in the high-end social strata of the spa, and also has just lost her own newborn son. Finally, Libby West does strong work as Giving’s assistant, Annie, who quietly falls for Sabrina, and Tom Shelton embodies a brash businessman of that era as Sabrina’s undesired husband.

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Ruhl’s play works well as a light comedy, but its attempts to have dramatic resonance are tentative and ineffective. The show never grapples with the sexism inherent in the medical establishment’s determination of “feminine hysteria,” instead preferring to repeat easy vibrator jokes, which feels like a missed opportunity. Also, the lesbian subplot between Annie and Sabrina—and Annie’s character in general—is seriously underwritten. Stangl, however, shines the show that exists to a high polish, and most audiences should find this play to be very enjoyable. John Arnone’s set is simple but effective, and David Kay Mickelsen’s lush and detailed costumes bring the era and the mindset of the characters to exquisite life.

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play
South Coast Repertory
Julianne Argyros Stage
655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa
Runs Tue. - Fri. 7:45; Sat. - Sun. 2 & 7:45, through Oct. 17.
Tickets $28-66.