No ‘Ruhl’ Book: In The Next Room (Review)

No Ruhl Book: In The Next Room (Review)

Sarah Ruhl has made a name for herself as a playwright of magic realism, depicting human mundanity with clever and, okay, quirky twists of language and landscape. In her most recent play, however, she has, in a sense, left behind the ‘Ruhl’ book that characterized her previous plays.  She’s pulled a reverse Oscar Wilde; after consistently writing plays arguably more akin in sensibility to Salome, she has now turned to writing her version of The Importance of Being Earnest.  The poetic and visually symbolic vein that runs through plays such as The Clean House, Late, and Eurydice is not to be found in In The Next Room, excepting perhaps the final scene in which two of the central characters, Dr. and Mrs. Givings, abandon Victorian decorum, undress, and make love outside in the snow.

Having said this, there are abiding themes in this play that link it with those that precede it: these include issues related to gender roles, female sexuality, and sexual orientation.  Just as Ruhl found dramatic inspiration for her play Late: A Cowboy Song in Anne Fausto-Sterling’s book Sexing the Body (2000), so in her newest play, she mined the historical insights found in Rachel Mines’ book The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction (1999).

While Ruhl’s play takes on once taboo subjects and evokes sufficient laughter in the process, it is not, on the whole, as sexy as its title; in fact, it’s no more provocative or punny than Wilde’s plays, which by comparison bear much less attention-grabbing titles.  A more fitting, though slightly less titillating, subtitle for In The Next Room or the vibrator play might be ‘the manual method,’ the vaginal massage ancient Greeks used to improve the health of depressed women.  Here is why:

Ruhl’s play, set in upstate New York during the dawning of electricity, does, indeed, center around Dr. Givings’ use of various vibrators to treat women and men suffering from 19th century “hysteria,” ironically, however, Dr. Givings’ patient, Mrs. Daldry, comes to prefer the manual method. What’s more, she prefers his nurse, Annie, be the one to administer it, which suggests the shortcomings of both men and science during this period when it came to understanding women’s (minds and) bodies, in addition to opening up a lesbian subtext that culminates in an awkward but poignant kiss between nurse and patient in act two.

In the program note, dramaturg Anne Cattaneo says the play is about “the discovery of the self”; I agree, but would add that the other crux of the play is intimacy, or rather the absence of it–a point so simply reinforced by the characters’ use of formal titles, rather than first names, to refer to each other.  The Givings and the Daldrys live in an era marked by tedious, impersonal social formalities and rigid, patriarchal gender roles; as a result, what they desperately need is not (pseudo)science or electrically powered devices, but merely human contact, frank conversation, a tender touch.

For a roundup of reviews see Critic-O-Meter.

In The Next Room runs until January 10, 2010 at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, New York, NY 10036.

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