Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What All the Buzz is About

Performance: In the Next Room or (AKA)The Vibrator Play
Theater: Woolly Mammoth Theater,641 D St, NW
Metro: Gallery Place-green/red or Archives/Navy Memorial-Green. Directions here.
Regular price tix range from $30 to $65, Under 25 tix are $15, Rush tix (sold 2 hours before showtime) are also $15
August 23 – September 19
Rating: 4/5 Starving Artists

When you go to a play called The Vibrator Play you know you’re going to have a lot to talk about afterwards. There’s really no way a play about the invention of the vibrator isn’t going to spark some intriguing dialogue. And Woolly Mammoth’s new production of Sarah Ruhl’s hot new play (fresh off its 2009 run at the Lincoln Center in New York) does just this. In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play leaves you talking about enlightenment and science and (of course) sexuality. It inspires some fascinating conversations, and I think this, more than anything, is the best part of the play.

The play is a historical drama set in the late 1800s about the invention of a new medical device, designed to relieve woman of an affliction known as “hysteria” (what we would call in a modern woman being “anxious,” “stressed out,” or just plain “horny”) by giving her a “paroxysm” (in modern parlance, and orgasm.) As hard as this is for modern Americans to believe, this process was, at least in its inception, in no way sexual. This was a treatment performed by a doctor with a medical instrument. It’s just like getting your blood pressure checked or having your tonsils looked at. But as the women in the play discover, this particular procedure is not that similar to having your BP measured or your tonsils examined. There is something deeper, more personal, more sacred going on. This dawning realization that sexuality is a natural human condition provides the play with its driving force. The linking of this paroxysm to sex and sexuality is a revelatory experience for each of the women in the play.

The play is well written and well acted. It’s funny without ever being vulgar, and the occasional double entendre keeps the play interesting at its slower moments. It gets, at times, riotous laughter from the audience, but it never feels as though it’s being played for laughs. And the facial expressions on the actors when they have their paroxysms and when they hear others having one are priceless. As always, Woolly company member (and this blogger’s favorite DC actor) Sarah Marshall, steals the show with hysterical and animated facial gestures.

The play is not without a few faults. The lead actress, Katie deBuys, plays her character, Mrs. Givings, with an exceptional amount of earnestness that is usually endearing but occasionally offputting. She does from time to time feel like she’s trying a little too hard. And the staging, which relies on an imaginary wall between the living room of the house and the doctor’s office, would benefit from a little more intentionality. The wall’s presence is rarely acknowledged, so that when the actors dramatically “break through” it at the end of the play, this symbolic gesture is more confusing than powerful. But these issues are really minor when compared to the play’s strengths: humor, depth, and charm.

The play is definitely worth seeing. If you’re not put off by a few orgasms and some brief and tasteful male nudity (yes folks, only the men get naked in this one) then I think you’ll really enjoy this show. And more than that, you’ll enjoy talking about it after. I know Lady AWesome (shall we change her name to Mrs. 20something?) and I did!

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