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Turned on, turned off

'Vibrator Play' induces laughter, climaxes too soon

By Ben Gifford
On April 25, 2012

  • Birgit Huppuch (left) plays Mrs. Daldry, the primary patient in In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play. Gail Rastorfer (right) plays Annie, an assistant to Dr. Givings. Mrs. Givings, Nisi Sturgis (center) is curious to see what all the fuss is about when she enters the next room. Photo by Roger Mastroianni / Cleveland Play House

As its title suggests, "In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play" is racy. The way it examines the misunderstanding and (mis)treatment of supposed feminine maladies during the dawn of electricity is absolutely hilarious. At the same time, Sarah Ruhl's script begins to insert unnecessary drama at the expense of the kind of comedy that is so immediately grabbing from the outset.

The Greek word for "uterus" is "hystera" and has infiltrated English with words like "hysterectomy" and "hysteria." The latter was apparently a common diagnosis for women once upon a time. Hysteria was thought to be caused by a build up of magnetic fluids in the uterus which needed to be released and redistributed throughout the body.

The "cure" for hysteria was performed manually by doctors until the advent of electricity and the invention of the vibrator in the late 1800s.

It goes without saying; the vibrator made "treatment" much easier and simpler. "In the Next Room" explores this strange time with comedic flair.Laura Kepley's direction is spot on, and all of the players posses flawless comedic timing.

Specifically, Birgit Huppuch is delightful as Mrs. Daldry, a patient receiving this treatment. Her curiosity and unbridled glee is that of a school girl coming of age, transforming from listless to blissful in a matter of minutes.

The women of "In the Next Room," including Daldry, enjoy these sensations that they are experiencing for the first time. Even though this is played up in a number of different, humorous ways, it does start to grow tiresome toward the end of the first act.

Thankfully, there's Zac Hoogendyk. A natural ham, he injects some much needed life in the beginning of the play's second act. His character, Leo Irving, is also diagnosed with hysteria - a rare "disease" in men - and the cure requires similar means. Hilarity ensues, though certainly this brand of humor is not for all.

Ruhl's exploration of the medical misunderstanding of the female body, the invention of the vibrator and the resulting age of sexual discovery is very entertaining, but the script takes an unneeded turn toward serious.

Since the play seems so directionless at times - it's mostly a string of vibrator jokes with an emphasis on physical humor - Ruhl shoehorns a love plot between husband and wife.

Though this arc evolves naturally, it feels a little rushed. It's the abrupt change in tone, however, that's terribly jarring. As if there's something wrong with a play that remains lighthearted and funny throughout, Ruhl shifts her characters into serious and solemn moods at inopportune times.

No point in the play emphasizes this more than the bizarre monologue by the wet nurse Elizabeth (Rachel Leslie). Though Leslie delivers it well, her speech delves into spiritual aspects previously unmentioned anywhere in the play. It feels out of place, contrived and unnecessary in a production that is but-gustingly funny for a majority of its run time.

The Cleveland Play House (CPH) stages and performs it exceptionally well. Ruhl's script just has trouble balancing comedy with impactfulness.

At least the CPH is able to end the play on a lighter, unburdened note (quite literally), marrying a beautiful love with stark humor and making the endeavor worthwhile.

"In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play" runs until May 13 on the Cleveland Play House second stage. Tickets range from $49 to $69. For more information, visit clevelandplayhouse.com. Discounted tickets are also avilable in person at the PlayhouseSquare box office for $6 (Sunday through Thursday) and $15 (Friday and Saturday) for currently enrolled CSU students under age 25 (with valid ID).

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