In the Next Room, or the vibrator play By Sarah Ruhl Directed by Aaron Posner; At Woolly Mammoth to Sept. 26 Chess Directed by Eric Schaeffer Music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus; Lyrics by Tim Rice; Book by Richard Nelson; At Signature Theatre to Sept. 26 Woolly considers the vibrator; Signature tries to give ABBA-scored chess masters new life.

What’s the Story, Moaning Glory?: In the Next Room, comedy hits a high pitch.

It’s not uncommon in the theater for silences to say as much as words. But gasps? Moans?

Welcome to the world of The Vibrator Play, in which those involuntary noises, produced by reserved Victorian ladies trained to keep a lid on anything more impromptu than a delicate sigh, do in fact speak volumes about things normally left unsaid. Sarah Ruhl’s often uproarious, occasionally melancholy comedy, which bears the somewhat more decorous formal title In the Next Room, pulls the bloomers off a surprising 19th-century medical strategy: a fad, among the physicians of the late 1800s, for applying Mr. Edison’s electrical innovations to the treatment of “hysterical disorders” among the ladies of the leisure class. But the real eye-opener for many audiences will be the historically accurate observation that the play’s ironically named Dr. Givings, in prescribing clinical electromechanical stimulation to the point of “paroxysm” as a means of restoring anxious patients to their former bloom, has hardly invented some revolutionary new treatment. Far from it: His vigorously waspish new instrument is merely an efficiency improvement on a manual technique as old as the Greeks.

It will perhaps have occurred to you by now that in tackling what the literature describes, dryly, as “the reduction of female sexual behavior outside the androcentric standard to disease paradigms requiring treatment,” In the Next Room might have gone wrong six times before Scene 2. It might have been squirm-inducingly vulgar or tiresomely broad or unappetizingly clinical or embarrassingly earnest. But Ruhl is a singularly gifted playmaker, a writer with an instinct for unexpected images and a knack for observations mordant and witty and true, and she approaches her subject matter with a skeptical eye, an open heart, and above all a precise ear. And in the handsomely designed, attractively upholstered production at Woolly Mammoth, she’s being artfully served by the sensitive director Aaron Posner and a cast whose pitch is well-nigh perfect.

The second act? It gets longish, yes, as it insists on fleshing out various subplots: one involving the surprise (not really) attraction of a patient to the midwife who assists in her therapy; another involving the doctor’s high-spirited wife and the wet nurse who’s taken over that most intimately maternal of duties; a third involving mother, nurse, and a flamboyant young painter who’s come to Dr. Givings’ consulting room suffering from symptoms much like the ladies’. (Let no one say that the good doctor isn’t an equal-opportunity therapist—or that Ruhl, who’s often described as a heady, esoteric sort of playwright, is above the occasional poke joke.)

But Cody Nickell proves comically flighty and surprisingly kind as Leo Irving, that impulsive artist; James Konicek and Eric Hissom (the latter, with Nickell, key to the success of Posner’s effervescent Arcadia at the Folger Theater last year) are the amusingly blinkered husbands, each oblivious in his own way to the needs and changes of the woman with whom he is theoretically one.

Kimberly Gilbert puts her impeccable timing and her sharply calibrated physical-comedy instincts to ideal use as Mrs. Daldry, the patient whose initial complaints yield rapidly to an ill-masked enthusiasm for repeat treatments. And Sarah Marshall, playing the diligent midwife Annie, gets an oceanic laugh with little more than a reach beneath a sheet and an expression that melts from the workaday to the faraway.

Behind the guffaws—and there are many, many guffaws—the play’s heart beats passionately. Mrs. Daldry’s sensual awakening comes with a corresponding emotional opening that can only wound. The wet nurse (a quietly lovely Jessica Frances Dukes) exposes her own longings, only to clamp down on them again. And at the center of the story, always, is Katie DeBuys’ radiant, impatient Mrs. Givings, a bird magnificently caged until she discovers, in one of Ruhl’s signature dreamy transfigurations, a way to unlock the door for herself, and to invite her hidebound husband to step through with her. In charting her escape, Ruhl maps out the generous promise of sexual revolution—and in delivering a sex comedy with a head on its shoulders and a heart on its sleeve, she offers our often sour, eternally puritanical society a tonic for one big part of what ails it.

Chess Directed by Eric Schaeffer Music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus; Lyrics by Tim Rice; Book by Richard Nelson; At Signature Theatre to Sept. 26

Let’s get this out of the way up front, because I’d like to be as charitable about Chess as Ruhl is about the way men have too often treated women: Euan Morton can sure as hell sing. He sings the bejeezus out of “Anthem,” the heart-stirring melody in which a defecting Soviet chess champion proclaims his unbreakable connection to the land he’s leaving. He sings sharply, opposite a manipulative KGB minder, about the fears and drives of a man at the top of his game; he sings tenderly, in concert with the silver-sopranoed Jill Paice, a duet about how hard it is to put love into words.

But here’s the thing: That duet, “You and I,” keeps circling back to the observation that Morton’s Anatoly and Paice’s Florence have “seen it all, chasing our hearts’ desire”—but it is by no means apparent, either from Richard Nelson’s oft-reworked book or from Eric Schaeffer’s streamlined but still flashy staging at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, what those hearts’ desires actually are.

As the story opens, why is Florence, a 30-something genius with a past shadowed by the 1956 Soviet crackdown on Hungary, in thrall to the bratty American chess master Freddie Trumper (Jeremy Kushnier)? Couldn’t tell you; there’s no obvious sympathy between them, nothing about him to suggest what makes her put up with his diva displays. Nor is there anything, on stage or on the page, to explain Florence’s transfer of her affections to Anatoly midway through the Bangkok phase of a chess championship that will, inevitably, bring all concerned back to Budapest before they’re done. (Speaking of Bangkok: The lurching, crotch-centric choreography on display when Trumper spends his “One Night In ...” that famously loose Thai capital isn’t doing anyone any favors.)

Launched as a concept album, successful in a massive London production, but a legendary if cultishly admired flop on Broadway, Chess has always been a problem show. Schaeffer’s revival, the first major U.S. staging in many a year, strips away most of the political specifics and some of the spectacle of gamesmanship, preferring to focus instead on the people and their problems.

Understandable gambit, when fewer and fewer audiences remember the Reagan-Andropov era it’s set in, much less the decades of arcane geopolitical machination that preceded it.

But Nelson, along with songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus—the ABBA veterans, whose melodies can be surprisingly sophisticated, even if they often seem to have little to do with the words Tim Rice has strung upon them—hasn’t given Schaeffer much to work with, and some of the newest revisions to the story move its conclusion away from the bleakly tragic toward the mawkishly sentimental. If the complicated maneuvers of the heart—and of the game that was once at the center of this musical—are what intrigue you, you’ll probably come away feeling unmoved. Go just for the songs, though, if that’s your thing; you’ll definitely come away with one on your lips.

Our Readers Say

You either love the show... and love it in all of it's versions, or you dont.

I saw it at several community theaters in DC. I still loved it.

And i will love it in the hands of Eric, Saturday matinee.

Thanks, Eric for doing both CHESS and SUNSET BOULEVARD this season.
Go see the Vibrator Play!
Do not be squeamish.... hurry to get your tickets and you will thank Woolly Mammoth for the entertainment. It is a wonderful show.

Leave a Comment

Note: HTML tags are not allowed in comments.
Comments Shown. Turn Comments Off.
...