Wednesday, February 25, 2009

My original review of Sarah Ruhl's "In the Other Room," in reading at the Wilma Theatre

Just so no one makes any mistakes about this, the Wilma held a staged reading of Sarah Ruhl's new play In the Other Room during the first week of January, 2009. Berkeley Rep had commissioned Ruhl to write a play about the history of the vibrator.

The Broad Street Review ran my article about the reading, then took it down in response to complaints from the Wilma. The controversy led first to the Wilma Papers, and later to my article The Case for Cantankerous Critics.

Over two dozen Broad Street Review readers commented upon the first article. Scroll down, as their responses are here.

For the record, I was the first person to comment critically upon Ruhl's new play. And despite the controvery, and a young woman who threatened me with (admittedly, laughable) violence, that's what has always mattered to me.

Here's what I had to say:

Quick question to the Philadelphia theatre community: How does a staged reading at the Wilma offers a better night of theatre than most of the full productions I’ve seen this season?

Like reading a play at home without the intermediacy of a production, a staged reading can’t destroy my direct sense of a play by interfering with what my imagination can too often do better. (Though stage manager Patreshettarlini Adams did use the one prop to a delicious effect, and when you get to the full title of the play, you’ll know the prop.) As for the actors working under Blanka Zizka’s direction, the almost all-equity cast impressed, and personally, I would rather see Julianna Zinkel or Sarah Sanford give a staged reading than watch most other Philadelphia actresses perform.

But Sarah Ruhl’s recently penned script In the Next Room (or, The Vibrator Play), is, of course, what made the entire evening. Berkeley Repertory—where the play will receive its world premiere next month—commissioned Ruhl to write a play about the history of the vibrator, a device first used for medical purposes to release up “pent-up emotions in the womb” by inducing “paroxysms” (orgasms) in hysterical women. Taking advantage of the new age of electricity, scientists in the 1880’s invented this new marvel—as Wilma literary manager Walter Bilderback so eloquently put it—“because the doctors and nurses hands and fingers kept getting tired.”

In Ruhl’s play, the inventor is the appropriately named Dr. Givings (Ross Manson), who assisted by a former midwife (Mary McCool as Annie), operates a clinic in a prosperous spa town outside of New York. He’s visited by patients like Sabrina Daldry (Sanford), whose husband (Ben Lloyd) has brought her in to cure her “women’s problems.” Givings prescription: daily releases of nerves that result in the most number of simulated orgasms I’ve ever seen (or would want to see) on stage.

Givings wife Catherine (Zinkel) becomes jealous, initially at the bonding between their baby and the wet-nurse Elizabeth (Miriam Hyman), later at her husband’s greater interest in providing relief to these women than providing attention for her. So she attempts to seduce the young painter Leo (Luigi Sottile)—the rare case of a man having vibrator-requiring hysteria—in order to provoke some sort of emotional response from her husband. Meanwhile, Sabrina becomes attracted to Annie (even asking for the device-free “Annie method” in therapy), and it leads to a situation that the stage direction describe as “we wonder if we’re about to witness three women play with a vibrator.”

However, that line is the best joke of the play, and through most of the “treatments” (applications of the device), the audience laughter made it very difficult to hear the lines of Ruhl’s incredibly hilarious first act. The women, especially McCool’s deadpan “I’ll wash my hands now,” and Sanford’s childlike innocence about her paroxysms, diminish any suggestive quality, and keep the awkward clinical situation just uncomfortable enough that if we didn’t laugh, we’d feel grossed out.

And for a play almost entirely about women’s needs for intimacy, their jealousy, awkwardness about asking for what they want, and family neuroses, I loved it. However, these issues only provide a spring board for the richly-integrated, deeper questions about race and class, the strange patriarchy of religion (cleverly asking at one point “why does Jesus get eaten when women breastfeed”), sexual politics inside the family, and the value of love versus sex. Her play operates and engages intellectually and emotionally, and Ruhl’s brilliance explodes the hysteria surrounding these themes with humor, making all of it entertaining, and best of all, palatable to both imbibe and discuss.

But surprisingly, the conclusions Ruhl draws are reactionary in their tone (far more so than the daddy-clinging that drove the theme and plot of her recent Eurydice). Catherine’s jealousy turns her into a sexually frustrated housewife who questions her husband’s adequacy. She begs him to use the device on her (he won’t, finding it unseemly to “experiment” on his own wife), and when she breaks into his operating theatre and tries it herself (with Sabrina’s assistance), it makes her “excitable” and she begins craving the feeling like an addiction.

In fairness, Ruhl’s got plenty of evidence that back this up. Though scientists began using the vibrator-induced orgasm as a “cure-all” for hysteria, commercial applications quickly followed, as the device became a popular amenity at luxury resorts (imagine seeing one in your hotel room), and the fifth home appliance to become electrified. But Ruhl’s theme—mostly delivered through Leo, the only fully rounded male character—is clear: after showing us where this road to pleasure leads, she puts her clear stamp of judgment on the lure of easy sexual pleasure versus the fruits of relationships built on compromises.

Describing the difference between an electrified lamp and a candle that flickers, Leo tells Catherine “A light without flame isn’t divine, and like having relations with a prostitute, without love, without the heart, bodies are means to an end.” And how does Ruhl end the play? By asserting contra women’s magazines and bedroom feminism, that women really want an emotional connection, and the best way to keep your wife from becoming hysterical is simple: pay her some attention and respect, and most importantly, love her, you idiot.

Strangely enough, Ibsen made the same point in A Doll’s House, written during the same period in which Ruhl set her new play. I realize that Ruhl had to completely infantilize her female characters (except the wise, noble, African-American, which in one instance, invokes a racist stereotype still common in our time) in order to get the humor of the innocence in using a vibrator. However, Ibsen’s Nora did not evince this level of childishness in order for her to become “liberated.”

And here I’m starting to see a reactionary pattern. In her recent Eurydice, Ruhl engenders a similar effect, as Eurydice, rather than return to her tumultuous and uncertain relationship with Orpheus, clings to the safe, easy, constant love that her father (as protector) gives her in the underworld. What next, a Stepford Wives style play where the robots gain consciousness but discover they’re happier in their delusions?

Is it possible that the hottest female playwright in the country has gotten there by embracing fathers, prioritizing love, infantilizing women, and dismissing (the now passé) liberating form of feminism? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not completely unhappy about this development, and while I liked the similar women-centered scripts of the Wilma’s recent Age of Arousal and Eurydice better, the subject matter, themes, and wit of In the Other Room make this play far more stage worthy. I can’t think of any audience member—except perhaps the extremest of Puritans—who wouldn’t find something to enjoy in this play.

Though Ruhl’s latest play is not without its faults, the Wilma should take a chance on producing it next season. They easily could have charged money for just a staged reading.

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