Thursday, December 10, 2009

Room with a view on Broadway

My review of Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room or the vibrator play is online at the Live Design site. But it may be lurking behind a firewall (where, groan, Variety is retreating) so here it is...

"The Lincoln Center Theater production of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or the vibrator play is housed in Broadway’s oldest theatre, the Lyceum. It’s the perfect place for the show, whose period setting—the 1880s, as electricity was being introduced—matches the antique atmosphere of the venue. Progress and its discontents are a theme of the comedy, which focuses on a doctor (four-time Tony nominee Michael Cerveris) who treats neurotic women for “hysteria,” a medical condition at that time. The treatment, which involves electrical stimulation of the delicate regions, proves wildly popular among his clientele—but neither the women, nor the men in their lives, realize the stress-relieving “paroxysms” for what they are. This includes the doctor’s wife (Laura Benanti, a Tony winner for Gypsy, who, dissatisfied with her life after the birth of their first child, secretly uses the equipment on herself—and begins to feel an unexpected surge of affection for her husband’s first male patient (Chandler Williams), a lovelorn artist who, in one of the show’s funniest scenes, endures/enjoys his own tailor-made treatment.

After the excruciatingly whimsical Dead Man’s Cell Phone, I’d disconnected on Ruhl, but this new play matches the style of earlier shows like The Clean House and Eurydice with more heartfelt substance. (And bigger laughs, too, as the actors, especially Maria Dizzia as one of the doctor’s more avid patients, react to the therapy.) Best known for their musical parts Cerveris (in a rare performance with hair) and Benanti are affectingly awkward as the couple, who little comprehend one another’s needs, at a time when people didn’t know or acknowledge that they had needs. Under the confident direction of Les Waters, they and the rest of the cast, including Quincy Tyler Bernstine as the more knowledgeable wet nurse employed by the doctor, give performances that respond nimbly to the shifts in tone in Ruhl’s work.

There are, perhaps, too many gear changes; after a brisk first act the second act dips in pace, though the design team rallies with a lovely coup that ends the show on a romantic note. Until that time this is the most naturalistic production Ruhl has written, with a handsome two-room set, by Annie Smart, that is ideal for drawing room comedy—one is the living room, and the “next” is the operating theatre. David Zinn’s richly detailed costumes, which require much effort to work around for the treatments to take place, are a constant source of pleasure, as is Russell Champa’s dawn-of-electricity illumination; lighting is referred to often in the text, and Champa’s takes full, yet understated, advantage of the opportunity. Jonathan Bell’s evocative original score is a primary recipient of Bray Poor’s fine sound design. Abuzz with humor and heartache, the vibrator play proves a vibrant work."

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