Review: In The Next Room, or the vibrator play

by Jane

Amber McMahon. Photo by Shane Reid.

In this house in the 1880s, the drawing room can be the domain of Catherine Givings (Amber McMahon), the slightly frustrated wife, slightly depressed new mother. In the next room is the domain of Dr Givings (Renato Musilino). This is the room where the man of the house can do his work, treating his patients. Largely women. Largely though the power of that newfangled beast: electricity. And the newfangled thing that electricity powers: the vibrator. A strictly utilitarian machine for therapeutic treatment, the cure for hysteria.

Mr Daldry (Brendan Rock) is concerned about his wife, Sabrina (Lizzy Falkland). She is faint, shaky, tired, shies away from bright lights. Hysteria, Dr Givings diagnoses. Not to worry, he and midwife Annie (Katherine Fyffe) will treat her. Once daily. It will all work out fine. Not only is Sabrina treated, but she strikes up a friendship with Catherine, and offers her maid Elizabeth (Pamela Jikiemi), recently bereft of a infant son, up as Catherine’s wet nurse.

But now there is a new patient at Dr Givings office. Leo Irving (Cameron Goodall). But surely Dr Givings couldn’t treat a man? Or could he?

Sarah Ruhl’s In The Next Room, or the vibrator play, gives it all up to its audience front and centre. In this production under director Catherine Fitzgerald, the plot points detailed above are no more than window dressing: this is a comedy about vibrators.

Ruhl’s script hints at deeper issues: of the place of women in society, of good company and polite conversations, of the idea that women couldn’t derive pleasure from sex, of racism, of staunch gender roles, the heterosexual union, the position of sex as utilitarian, the position of women as mothers, and the position of men as providers. Fitzgerald’s production, however, never stops to tease out or explore these strands. Rather it skims along on its merry way: this is a light-hearted night out. It is a comedy. About vibrators.

Curiously, I felt like the production was keeping us two steps – or perhaps a century and a half – ahead of every joke. I would figure out the next punch line, the cast would utter it, and then, after the comedic moment had already passed in my mind, around me the audience would laugh. It gave the most curious air of sitting inside the laugh track of an 80s sitcom: a sitcom of wild popularity where you can dissect the jokes on an intellectual level, but feel no need or impetus to laugh yourself. Perhaps I felt the laugh track was doing it for me.

The jokes, in any case, are hardly intellectually rigorous. Ruhl almost completely dispenses with the double entendre for its cousin, the single entendre. The joke – part aren’t orgasms curious? and part isn’t it silly they don’t understand? – hardly changes for the three hour running time, and while it doesn’t become tiresome, it also doesn’t manage to take you anywhere in particular at all.

On opening night, act one was paused as an audience member had a medical emergency. His escort from the theatre was handled quickly and professionally, holding up the work for no more than five minutes. As the act went on, I started to wonder: was this pause too long an interruption? have they chosen to cut the interval? is that why the play is stretching on, seemingly towards nothing? I was wrong, and after almost two hours the interval came, placed with no real impetus or consequence, except to give a toilet and a drink break. There was no defining moment splitting up the two acts, no peak was reached by the end of act one, and before we returned I could not think of a place Ruhl was going to take the work, except further along the same path.

And along the same path we trod. Another act of aren’t orgasms curious? Isn’t it silly they don’t understand? Another act of vibrators. Another act of figuring out the joke, then hearing the joke, then hearing the laughter. Of course, by the end, Ruhl has figured out, well, an ending to the play, which seems quite an achievement in a play that largely struggles to have a defined beginning or a climatic middle, existing entirely in a middle that is largely directionless.

Judging by the accents, like many American plays we are treated to in Adelaide, In The Next Room seems to take place in that curious Southern New England US state, bordered by Ireland, England, Australia, and Romania. The actors almost seem to be in different productions: McMahon’s farce is turned up to eleven, rarely matched by the other performers. In Fitzgerald’s production it is the moments of absolute farce which work the strongest: and, intermittently when paired against McMahon, Goodall and Falkland reach these heights. Fyffe and Jikiemi, as women who sit on the edges of this world, give performances that are more reigned in, a down-key refinement and subtlety. Musolino and Rock sit somewhere between these: occasionally farcical, occasionally tied up in the dryness of disposition of men of this world.

David Gaddsen’s lighting is largely utilitarian: the “modern” advances of electricity given their easiest interpretation through the new lighting in the Givings household. Alisa Paterson’s design is extravagant without being gaudy. The shallow set of drawing room and “next room” keeps the action confined to a small downstage plot, although a gap of several meters between the first row of seats and the edge of the stage creates an odd perception of distance. The home is a statement of class to be presented to the world; where the refinement is overshadowed by the exaggerated wall patterns and bright colours: a yellow plaid for Mr Daldry, a bright purple dress for his wife. The costumes best serve McMahon, where her farce is highlighted by her dress of a mismatch of screaming fabrics.

Catherine Oates composition is, like the production, largely light, skimming across piano keys to take us from scene to scene; and it is a relief to hear directional sound being correctly employed by the State Theatre Company in the Dunstan Playhouse after far too long.

In The Next Room, despite it’s title, is a largely inoffensive and gently humourous play, which managed to draw guffaws from the opening night crowd. At the end of the day, this production brings us little more than modern piece of repertory-theatre drawing-room-comedy, although you’d be forgiven for not realising the modern. Yet, I want a little more.

2012 has been a landmark year for women. I sat in this theatre the night Obama was declared the second-term President of the US in an election he won in no small part through the women’s vote: through the vote of women standing up and laying claim to their rights to their bodies and their lives. I wanted more, then, following this, to sit in a theatre and laugh at women and men and vibrators. Aren’t orgasms curious? Isn’t it silly they don’t understand?

The State Theatre Company of South Australia presents In The Next Room, or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Catherine Fitzgerald, designed by Alisa Paterson, lighting design by David Gadsen, composition by Catherine Oates, voice and dialect coach Simon Stollery. Photo by Shane Reid. With Lizzy Falkland, Katherine Fyffe, Cameron Goodall, Pamela Jikiemi, Amber McMahon, Renato Musolino and Brendan Rock. At the Dunstan Playhouse until November 24. More information and tickets. 

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