Theater Review - Synchronicity sets theater abuzz with Vibrator Play
Victorian-era sex comedy takes pleasure into its own hands
Synchronicity Theatre's In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play counts as a sex comedy, but don't get the wrong idea. Set in New York in the 1880s, the play features numerous scenes of women removing their dresses and corsets, but contains no actual nudity — the Victorian-era undergarments leave the ladies more clothed than the average 21st-century college student. And despite the many moments of women getting satisfaction, the most active sex partner turns out to be a new-fangled electrical apparatus that resembles a power drill with a rounded tip.
"We are going to produce in you what is called a 'paroxysm,'" Dr. Givings (Brian Kurlander) explains to a female patient before firing up his invention. Playwright Sarah Ruhl found inspiration from the text The Technology of Orgasm, which documents how Victorian-era doctors developed vibrators to cure women of "hysteria," a catchall diagnosis for depression and other feminine ailments. Dr. Giving's gizmo gets the job done, and while his patients retain their personal problems, they leave his operating theater considerably more relaxed.
In the Next Room takes place on a set split between Dr. Giving's home office and his parlor. The action reveals how the physical responses in one room can have emotional consequences in the other. Director Rachel May ensures that In the Next Room is as sexy and comedic as possible, while also bringing out the play's insights. In the long run, a good paroxysm is no substitute for intimacy and self-knowledge.
Dr. Givings' wife Catherine (Kate Donadio), a flighty, upper-class homemaker, serves as the main character. Donadio gives her lines an amusingly piping delivery, but despite Catherine's sunny disposition, she laments the fact that her newborn baby finds her mother's milk inadequate. She reluctantly hires a wet nurse, Elizabeth (Xiomara Yanique), and becomes increasingly suspicious of her emotionally remote husband's treatments. "Experiment on me!" she demands, despite his misgivings that the vibrator could have unwholesome side effects on a normal woman. Catherine steals visits to the vibrator with a female patient (the funny Tiffany Morgan) and blossoms under the attentions of a male one (Tony Larkin).
Author of The Clean House and the heartbreaking Eurydice, Ruhl frequently uses comedy to take intriguing ideas for a spin. In the Next Room touches on how electricity will anticipate enormous social changes, such as the contrast between the sensuality of candlelight and the harshness of light bulbs. The production's lighting design, however, never seems dim or warms enough when the lights are supposed to be down. At times when the characters speculate on a plugged-in electric future, the dialogue lands too heavily on the nose. Plus, the Elizabeth character has a condescending quality as a salt-of-the-earth person of color who gives life lessons to uptight white people. Yanique gives a restrained performance that suits the role's tragic backstory, but doesn't rise above the cliché.
Kurlander flourishes as Dr. Givings, a man of science who struggles to express his love for his wife among other emotions. One of his best scenes finds the doctor barely able to bottle his jealous rage when he catches Catherine flirting with another man. Overall, In the Next Room shines when it lightens up and explores the implications of its premise, like why paroxysms leave one person drowsy but another more energetic, or how a doctor adopts the treatment for a hysterical male. And Synchronicity always gets a laugh when it finds a punch line in the sound effect, "Buzzzzzz."