Theatre Review: “In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play” at the Phoenix Theatre

Dear Reader, I must apologize for again taking longer than a week to post a review.  I saw and loved Sarah Ruhl’s Tony-and-Pulitzer-nominated “In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play,” directed and produced by Bryan Fonseca, at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis on Sunday, October 3, 2010.  That was the weekend it opened here.  It is scheduled to run for two more weekends.

As wonderful as it is, it is not the sort of play that is going to be snapped up by community theatres here in central Indiana, and somehow I don’t see the other professional theatres picking it up, either, so if you want to see it, you had better make time to see it at the Phoenix.  But even beyond the Phoenix’s exclusivity, the Phoenix’s production of this play is lovely.  Truly lovely.

What the Show Is About

“In the Next Room” is about many interesting things.  On one level it is about the early history of vibrators:  before they were seen by anyone as having anything to do with sex they were seen as useful for general health.  On another level this show is about the ebb and flow, the pros and cons, of technological “progress.”  On yet another level, it is about limits – not just between races and classes and between men and women at this time in history but also limits related to people’s abilities to imagine themselves differently.  And on yet another level, my favorite, it is about loneliness and love and the fact that both men and women have insecurities and needs and there are no short-cuts to true intimacy.

The story takes place in the early 1900s.  Mr. Givings (Michael Shelton) is a physician that idealizes Mr. Edison and “electrical therapy.”  He loves to think about the day when “all will be plugged in.”

He specializes in treating people (mostly women but also a few men) who suffer from what we would now call depression. He sees his patients in a room off the parlor in the home that he shares with his wife (Lauren Briggeman) and their newborn baby.  One of Mr. Givings’ patients is Mrs. Daldry (Angela Plank.)  Her husband, Mr. Daldry (Doug Johnson), brings her to see Mr. Givings because she has been so listless and out of sorts. 

Mr. Givings has a new electrical device – a large box with an apparatus that he applies to a woman’s nether regions until the congestion that is causing her suffering is released.  It is very effective and the machine is so efficient that each treatment is usually successfully completed in less than three minutes.  No one speaks of, or even thinks of, sex or sexuality during a treatment.  It is a purely medical procedure.

Mrs. Daldry is reluctant at first, but Mr. Givings’ assistant, Annie (Sara Riemen), holds her hand while Mr. Givings works the machine and then Mrs. Daldry responds well to the treatment.  (“Oh!”)  Mr. Givings prescribes weekly visits.   

We can see what is happening in Mr. Givings’ treatment room, but his wife can not and although she is very curious, he refuses to discuss his work with her.  She is also distressed because her baby will not breast feed and everyone knows that “a good mother has a fat child.”   

The Daldrys offer the Givings the use of their black servant, Elizabeth (Dwandra Nickole), as a nurse maid since Elizabeth’s own baby died recently.  Mr. Givings does not understand his wife’s reluctance to accept their offer.  Another patient, a painter named Leo (Scot Greenwell), visits the doctor for the male version of treatment and begs Elizabeth to allow him to paint her portrait in the Givings parlor when the doctor is not in the house.  He tells Mrs. Givings, “I love incomplete paintings!” and she thinks he is talking about her.

I am giving you more than I usually do about the plot (but without, I hope, giving too much away) because I want you to know that this play, despite the second half of its title, is about so much more than vibrators.  Or even sex.

Artistic Considerations (What Works in This Piece)

So…one thing that works in “In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play” is the rich layering in the plot.  Also, the language is beautiful.  I am sorry that I didn’t jot down more of the lines that particularly touched me but I remember thinking that this is a play that I would enjoy reading as well as hearing.  (Hearing it, of course, is best.)

Bryan Fonseca directed the show with sensitivity and wit and the six actors all deliver sublimely complex and convincing performances, whether they have a zillion lines or just a few.  There is a lot to laugh at in this show, but you laugh to relieve the tension because you are as uncomfortably surprised as the characters and/or you laugh knowingly because you can relate to the pleasure in their discoveries.  (Orgasms do feel good, don’t they!)  The show never makes fun of the characters in a mean way and therefore it does not make fun of us, either.

The show is visually beautiful, too.  Oh, my goodness, the set!  James Gross designed a bifurcated set that is divided between down and up stage rather than left and right as one might expect.  It is richly, ornately furnished in the Victorian style and includes a piano on which Mrs. Daldry plays sweetly elegant music composed by Tim Brickley.  Laura Glover’s lighting design smoothly brings our focus back and forth between the two rooms but also back and forth between electrical lighting and candlelight.  It is another important element in the show’s visual beauty.

And oh, my goodness, the costumes!  Andrea Baer designed bustled dress after gorgeous bustled dress in rich silks and brocades with accompanying hats and other accessories.  Mrs. Givings’ and Mrs. Daldry’s outfits made me swoon and wonder if I could get away with wearing something like them nowadays.  I wouldn’t be able to drive a car, of course.  But how did women in Victorian times even go to the restroom?  Never mind.  I would figure it out. 

Anthony Morton is the assistant director/stage manager.  Ashley Kiefer is the costume and prop intern.  Nolan Brokamp is the technical director.  Cody Grady is the light and sound operator.  In the performance I saw, everything seemed to run like clockwork.

Audience and Appeal Factors (Who Would Enjoy This Piece)

This is definitely a show for adults only, and only for adults that will not be overly uncomfortable or offended at seeing individual men and women having orgasms under a sheet on the doctor’s examining table.  There is a little bit of attractive male nudity, too.

However, in spite of this show’s “mature” content, if you are in the mood for something beautiful and uplifting as well as funny, unusual, and thought-provoking, this is the show for you.

It is also a treat for people who love historical period pieces.

By the way, there is an interesting show-related display for anyone to look at in the upstairs lobby.  In the short hallway downstairs is another display that Phoenix Managing Director Sharon Gamble called “the naughty lobby.”  There, under flaps of paper, are sexually explicit historical photos from around the same time period as the show, on loan from the Kinsey Institute.  At intermission, the “naughty lobby” was too crowded, so I waited until after the show to look.  The photos were of women using various tools to treat their “hysteria” symptoms. That satisfied my inner Curiosity Girl, but for me the photos didn’t match the mood of the show, even though the women in the photos were all smiling, so I felt a little disappointed.  (I don’t know what I was expecting though.  You may be delighted, of course, or thrilled or whatever.)

Box Office

“In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play” continues at the Phoenix through Sunday, October 24, 2010.  When I checked the Phoenix’s website just now, it said something about Wednesday performances under the Box Office tab, but I think that must either be a mistake or must apply to some other show.  I called the theatre just now to hear the recorded message and it says Thursday-Sunday, too, for “In the Next Room.”  And here is what was at the end of one of my press releases:

All seating is general admission on a first-come, first-served basis and all Thursday tickets are $15, thanks to a grant by Duke Energy; Friday, Saturday and Sunday performances are $25. Performance times are: Thursdays at 7pm; Friday and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Call the Phoenix Theatre box office at 317.635.7529 or purchase tickets online at www.phoenixtheatre.org.

So…I’m pretty sure you only have eight chances left to see this show if it interests you.  I would like to see it again!

‘See you at the theatres…

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com and www.twitter.com/IndyTheatre

Oh!  I almost forgot to mention three other interesting bits from the emails I have received recently from Marketing & Media Relations manager Lori Raffel at the Phoenix:

A FlexPass for $100 gets you 5 vouchers that can be traded in for any combination of tickets for any of our 2010–2011 productions. The Phoenix FlexPass will only be sold through October 31, 2010! Call the box office at 317.635.PLAY (7529) to charge by phone with VISA, MasterCard, or Amex.

This means that you can get in for $20 on Friday-Sunday instead of the usual price of $25.

Also, here is the blurb for the Phoenix’ next show, “My Name is Asher Lev,” written by Aaron Posner and adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok, which opens October 28, 2010: 

Asher Lev is a young Hassidic artist torn between his observant society and his need to create. His artistic genius threatens his relationship with his parents and community and weighs heavily on his conscience. The play is a fascinating coming-of-age story, blended with a debate about the nature of art.

That sounds interesting in and of itself, but also, the photo that accompanied that blurb in my email is of Bill Simmons!  I don’t think I have a press release for that show yet, but surely that photo means that Bill is in “My Name is Asher Lev.”  He is a) dreamy and b) an excellent professional actor.   I have seen him in, I think, six shows and enjoyed every performance.

The third fun thing I wanted to mention is that right now you can vote for your favorite sketches from previous “Very Phoenix Xmas” shows.  The winners will be in this year’s “A Very Phoenix Xmas 5: Regifted.”  Go to www.phoenixtheatre.org and scroll down a bit.

Okay, NOW I am calling it a night.  ‘See you at the theatres!

H.B.

(All photos above were taken by Julie Curry. Roll your mouse over each photo to see the actor credits.)

2 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play” at the Phoenix Theatre”

  1. My Name is Asher Lev features John Michael Goodson as Asher Lev, Wendy Farber as Asher’s mother (and various female roles) and, yes, Bill Simmons as Asher’s father (and various male roles.)

    I am finishing up the press release this evening and we’re taking photos tonight, so more to come.

    Hope, thank you for your tremendous attention to detail in all your reviews and for your limitless energy in promoting all things theatre in Central Indiana.

  2. Yay! Thanks very much, Lori. The Phoenix Theatre is, hands down, the most reliable theatre about sending me press releases and photos on a regular basis and without my having to ask for them. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this! So I didn’t mean to sound critical when I said that I didn’t have a press release yet for “Asher.” I just look forward to reading each one very much.

    I’m looking forward to seeing “My Name is Asher Lev,” too!

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