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Not enough serious theater has been done about sex toys. With In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Sarah Ruhl transforms the reputation of the vibrator from fringe-festival prop to serious theatrical subject matter. Kind of.
Billed as a “a story of repressed sexuality and physical exploration with equal doses of humor and emotion,” In the Next Room takes place in a Victorian-era examination room of a Victorian-era gyno, Dr. Givings, played by Eric Hissom in Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s season-opening production. Mrs. Givings, played by newcomer Katie deBuys, is suffering from a lack of…stimulation.
“For a long time any sort of malfunction in female sexuality, including plain old sexual frustration, was pathologized as a malady that they termed “hysteria”, deBuys tells Arts Desk. “So the way that this was treated was ‘vulvular massage,’ which was the doctor stimulating the woman to what he called a ‘paroxysm,’ which we now know to be an orgasm.”
Female patients such as Mrs. Daldry, played by Kimberly Gilbert, flock in and out of Dr. Givings office a bit more uplifted than they have before. This, of course, makes Mrs. Givings wonder if they know something she doesn’t. Dr. Givings’ method of “vulvular massage” never comes across to any of the patients as vaguely sexual. The vibrator is applied, the patient goes through a series of rather interesting convulsions, and then voila!—-life suddenly seems a lot brighter.
Jessica Frances Dukes, whom you’ll remember from Woolly productions like Antebellum and Eclipsed, plays Elizabeth, a wetnurse, who is the only one hip to the fact the treatment seems to suggest something more X-rated than a simple massage. Also in the play are James Konicek as Mr. Daldry, and Sarah Marshall as Annie, Dr. Giving’s assistant. Clybourne Park’s Cody Nickell plays a male patient with a rather interesting request.
Woolly has a number of events planned around the play, like an audience salon on Sept. 1, at which former City Paper Sexist blogger Amanda Hess will dish about technology, relationships, sex, and other topics. There’s also a girl’s night out on Sept. 2, where attendees can test out products from Pleasure Palace, and enjoy a happy hour.
But cocktails and sex talk shouldn’t give you any Sex and the City vibes, at least in this case. “I think anyone who’s ever been in a relationship, this play will be meaningful for,” deBuys says. “Anyone who has had questions about how their sexuality fits in with the rest of what life means, will enjoy this play. People who like funny things will enjoy it. I think guys will like it. There’s something dangerous and great about the orgasms, in that we’re going for truthful, but part of that is that sometimes it’s hot and sexy, and sometimes it’s uncomfortable to see that go on.”
In the Next Room premieres tonight with a pay-what-you-can performance at Woolly Mammoth. The show runs though Sept. 19.