“In The Next Room”
Who: Syracuse Stage
Where: 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13210
When: Through Feb. 15
Review by Lauren Cavalli
Imagine visiting a doctor with complaints about anxiety and being prescribed an “electrical massage ” for, you know, your parts . . . down there. In other words, the doctor prescribed you a good vibrator.
It may seem incredulous that men would let someone else physically stimulate their wives, but this was common practice in the 19th century. Surprisingly, a doctor’s administering of the contraption that was the original vibrator and the woman’s subsequent orgasm wasn’t seen as a sexual act, merely a necessary act to expel excess emotion and pent up nerves. It was meant to help one relax.
The invention of the vibrator and the beginning of the age of electricity make up the heart of Syracuse Stage’s fourth play of the season “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play.” Written by Sarah Ruhl, this smart play is charmingly fresh and extraordinarily innocent for the amount of moaning and gasping that one hears throughout the production.
The plot hilariously unfolds in the house of Dr. Givings (Christopher Kelly) and his wife, Mrs. Givings (Marianna McClellan). The stage was beautifully transformed into Mrs. Givings’s living room and the “operating theater” (exam room), which is, of course, in the next room. The audience gets to observe Mrs. Givings entertaining the unrelenting stream of houseguests and Dr. Givings treating his patients simultaneously.
The backdrop is a whimsical winter wonderland. The scenery consists of a forest of trees in both 3-D and 2-D that is simply enchanting. I found myself pleasantly reminiscing about Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping By Woods on A Snowy Evening.” It allows one to easily adopt Mrs. Givings’s delight in snow angels.
For most of the production members of the audience were either holding the stitches in their sides from laughing so hard, or trying, but failing, to suppress fits of giggles. However, there was a hint of seriousness that took center stage now and again. Krystel Lucas as the wet nurse, Elizabeth, gave a strong performance and emanated a quiet power when she delivered her lines. The loss of her baby and her loss of faith made her a powerfully moving character, but her story struggled to surface among the absurdity and silliness of the other characters.
McClellan brought Mrs. Giving’s spark, unapologetic honesty, and excitability to life as she rocketed around the stage. Kelly as the reserved, objective, scientist who struggled to please his wife, in more ways than one, was superb, striking the right balance between the self-assured scientist and the timid lover.
Kate MacCluggage as Mrs. Daldry painted a vivid portrait of hysteria as emotional instability and an unending weariness. She successfully shed her delicacy in act one, but at times came off as too frivolous.
Mark Junek as the artist Leo Irving, the only male suffering from hysteria, waltzed around the stage delivering each line with a punch that never failed to induce another wave of laughter from the audience. Whether sprawled out on the table, or conversing with the other characters, his performance was an essential ingredient to the success of the play.
In the second act, the pace slows down a bit. There is a scene where one patient dresses and it is painfully long to watch and lacking in dialogue. The scene eventually brings the actresses to the piano, which was sweet but also too long to hold one’s attention.
Overall, when you enter the theater you might think you are going to see a play rife with crass sexual humor at the expense of women and their “feminine sensibilities,” however, In the Next Room seduces you with its startling intimacy.
Living in an age where sex confronts us in Hollywood movies, HBO shows, and immensely popular novels such as “Fifty Shades of Grey,” this play makes sexiness more than just the aggressive tearing off of one’s clothes and intercourse between men with chiseled abs and women who are size double zero. It is unabashedly about our bodies and all the mess – from the
fluids from ejaculation to childbirth. It is about a bodily awareness and an emotional rawness in being naked, awkward, clumsy, horny, and in love.
The end of the play should leave you laughing and thanking God for Benjamin Franklin and the invention of electricity. Without it there would have never been a vibrator.