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With a title like "The Room Next Door, or the vibrator play," audiences might well expect a jolt or two – and not of the AC variety the newfangled electric gadgets of the late-19th century were known to occasionally deliver.
For those looking for a bit of shock and awe from J Street's "bold, intimate, live" theater, the current Capital Stage production of Sarah Ruhl's comedy does not disappoint. Though Ruhl's script goes for the gag switch a few too many times, and changes polarity with unsettling frequency, the uniformly strong cast led by Michael Stevenson, Elena Wright and Katie Rubin shine brightly and consistently.
Playing through Feb. 26, "The Room Next Door" is set in the late-19th century when the country was getting wired up, and men and women were getting buttoned up. As men's and women's fashions were adding layers and layers of floor-length outer and undergarments (fabulously designed here by costumer Gail Russell), so too were they masking their most primal emotions and desires in what was perceived as civility.
Dr. Givings (well-played with appropriate restraint by Stevenson) is a respected New York gynecologist who proudly refers to himself as a "man of science." His clinical bedside manner is respectful but wholly detached as he prattles on about the accomplishments of Ben Franklin and Thomas Edison and their contributions to the electrification of America while matter-of-factly applying what looks like a hand-held floor polisher to his patients' nether regions.
Convinced of the therapeutic value of the experimental contraption (which he believes cures a host of female-centric ailments, including "congested wombs" and the resulting "hysteria" they cause), Givings offers quick two- or three-minute applications (isn't that always the case?) to "release the juices downward."
He promises the women (and their husbands) who visit his home-based "operating theater" that they will see immediate results.
Among those calling on the good doctor are Mr. Daldry (a suitably stoic Alexander) and his wife, Sabrina (Rubin). Daldry is concerned that his wife is no longer the woman he married and that "there is very little sympathy between us."
"You have no idea what a source of anguish my wife's illness has been to me," he says, pausing just a moment before thinking to add, "And to her, of course."
Other concerns dominate the Givings household as well. Givings' wife Catherine is unable to properly nurse the couple's newborn daughter, who is losing weight. Offering the same clinical compassion to his wife as he does to his patients (whose moans and occasional cries to "God" go unnoticed), Givings flatly tells Catherine, "Your milk isn't adequate."
As he explains, he's not leveling blame, just stating the medical facts.
The grateful Mr. Daldry offers the services of their maid, who recently lost her own newborn, and is willing to serve as a wet nurse.
Frustrated by her inability to properly bond with her baby daughter, as well as with her husband, the always prowling, cat-like Catherine increasingly looks to her husbands' patients for conversation and more. One might think the Givings' home, which begins to feel like Grand Central Station in the second act, would annoy after a fashion, but Wright (in a marvelously antsy, even "hungry" performance) delivers a Catherine who doesn't mind the constant interruptions, but welcomes them to escape her passion-free home life.
"Experiment on me!" Catherine pleads to her husband, longing to witness the bright lights some of her husband's patients have reported seeing during their treatments. Essentially, she, too, would love to be blinded by science.
The era's repressed sexuality is repeatedly used as a punch line throughout the first act, as Sabrina's early trepidation evolves into a daily sprint through the Givings' parlor and into "the room next door" for longer and longer sessions.
These scenes become repetitive and merely stretch out what is already an overlong second act in which one wants to shout out, "Yeah – we get it! The vibrator is getting them off!" The larger joke (one that is also overused) is that the doctor seems oblivious to what his "treatment" is actually doing.
Adding to the bloated second act, and its deviation from massage-and-tickle farce to a more-serious treatise touching on everything from interracial relationships, gender preferences and death and dying, is the focus on two new characters – Elizabeth (Victoria Alvarez-Chacon), the Daldrys' African-American maid who is nursing the Givings' baby, and Leo Irving (Kirk Blackinton), an artist whose recent breakup during a European sojourn has resulted in a stifling creative malaise.
Those who love the vibrator of the title will love what the doc comes up with to alleviate Leo's artist's block.
Under the direction of Peter Mohrmann, there's really not a false moment delivered by the cast. Even in the most-absurd "Saturday Night Live" sketch-like moments of the play, they are true to their characters and rise above Ruhl's material. During the show's quieter scenes, such as in the climax (no pun intended) when Givings and his wife shed convention (and a good many layers of their wardrobe) to finally make a true emotional connection, Stevenson and Wright are absolutely mesmerizing.
Rubin, too, is very good – especially in her scenes with Wright in which the ladies let themselves into Givings' locked operating theater to do a little AC/DC experimentation on their own.
Alvarez-Chacon, who delivers her predominantly poignant lines as mandated by the script, seems a bit out of place. Her character seems like she's on loan from another play. It's not her fault – she, too, does the best she can with Ruhl's occasionally unruly script which is somewhat of a letdown following the pace and comedic tone of act one. Also, a case could be made that her character's speech about sexual satisfaction being best achieved through relations with a flesh-and-blood husband versus a power tool is a bit racist.
At Elizabeth's suggestion of such a scenario, both Catherine and Sabrina pooh-pooh the very thought, as if white, well-to-do women couldn't possibly understand the sexual honesty an "earthy" housekeeper of color such as Elizabeth takes for granted. One could also argue that Ruhl is saying that all lower-income African-American women have a genetic trait that makes slipping and sliding to Morris Day & The Time's "Jungle Love" second nature. Either way, it presents uncomfortable stereotyping.
Whether those who go to "In the Next Room, or the vibrator play" do so for pure titillation, for a glimpse at 19th-century sexual mores, as fuel for a discussion on playwriting, or simply to witness actors on top of their games, there are plenty of reasons to plug in.
JUST THE FACTS
WHAT: The Capital Stage production of Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room, or the vibrator play"
WHERE: Capital Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento, Calif.
WHEN: Plays Jan. 25-Feb. 26, 2012, with performances at 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 7 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (special Valentine's Day performance at 8 p.m. Feb. 14)
HOW MUCH: $20-$32; call (916) 995-5464, or go online at www.capstage.org
DIRECTOR: Peter Mohrmann
CAST: Michael Stevenson (Dr. Givings); Elena Wright (Catherine Givings); Katie Rubin (Sabrina Daldry); Greg Alexander (Mr. Daldry); Shannon Mahoney (Annie); Kirk Blackinton (Leo Irving); Victoria Alvarez-Chacon (Elizabeth)