Describing Sarah Ruhl’s play In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play, now onstage at Berkeley Rep, directed by Les Waters, it begins to sound like a fairytale or fable, albeit one for adults, perhaps part of its appeal. At the start of the Electrical Age, a female patient of an unconventional doctor, who has been treating her for hysteria, and the doctor’s wife start using the therapeutic equipment on themselves—and discover The Orgasm.
It’s not that simple, of course, especially as Ruhl’s play meanders over its two-and-a-half-hour course through patches of suggested themes and subplots, some of which get developed a little, or at least mentioned again, others dropped.
The desultory action takes place on Annie Smart’s set—two rooms, side by side, in a Victorian house with a winter garden outside. In one room, Dr. Givings (Paul Niebanck) stoically applies the juice to his patient (Maria Dizzia as Sabrina Daldry)—unless his assistant, Annie (Stacy Ross), midwife and amateur of Classical Greek, is forced to ply her effective manual treatment when the power fails—while in the next, his eager and frustrated wife Catherine (Hannah Cabell) paces and talks distractedly (or abstractly) to whoever arrives or leaves, all the while wondering what’s going on in the next room.
So they keep house, which gives them a foot in the door in the modern theater tradition where rooms are shown side by side, or at least with dissociated action in each, comedies by Feydeau and Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata, Maurice Maeterlinck’s groundbreaking Interior, the dressing room scenes in Kiss Me Kate, Alan Ayckbourn’s Connecting Rooms ... Meanwhile, Ruhl’s “nonlinear realism,” as John Lahr refers to it, blocks out a kind of Dissertation on a Roast Pig for Tesla and Edison’s AC/DC wars and their sexual equivalents. Of course, we, the audience, understand the anachronisms, while the charming puppets (and “charming” and “cute” were oft-quoted words of praise opening night) onstage hold to their innocence. Its hand-me-down Victorianisms make In the Next Room seem palely Gorey—Edward Gorey, that is, who knew how to draw the reader or audience into his darkly humorous entertainments, not leaving them cooing at safe remove.
(What hath Masters and Johnson wrought? Was it then that the old liberal/progressive apologetic cry, “At least we’re not fascists!” got swapped for “At least we’re not Victorians!”?)
After mentioning Edward Gorey, it’s only right to invoke post-Victorians like Ronald Firbank, whose nonsense makes Ruhl’s whimsy seem puerile, or the tradition of women writers—who certainly affected theater—from Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, H. D. and Bryher to Djuna Barnes and Jane Bowles, whose shredding of social (and, often enough, sexual) mores revel in real imagination and wit.
The performers at The Rep—who include Melle Powers as a black wet nurse who has lost her own child, Joaquin Torres as painter Leo Irving (also suffering from hysteria, though it probably would have been referred to as neuraesthenia, and so, as an artist, seen as doubly unmanly) and John Leonard Thompson as Mr. Daldry (who proves rambunctuous with Mrs. Givings, that spirited woman)—all do their job as well as the vagaries of the script allows them.
It’s a kind of dilettantish writing, once again popular, even admired, that Norman Mailer once put his finger on, talking about a famous contemporary of his: “A lot of writers go to a cocktail party, have a few drinks and talk up an idea—but he’s the only one who goes home and writes it!”
IN THE OTHER ROOM
Through March 15 at the Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St. $33-$71. 647-2949. www.berkeleyrep.org.