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November 27th, 2009

In the Next Room-the vibrator play

Well, of course we went. How could we resist? Feminist comedy about those wacky Victorians and their "modern" treatment for feminine hysteria, involving an electric vibrator roughly the size of a 12" TV set (one of the old-fashioned square ones, with tubes). And cool costumes. Also an extremely positive New York Times review--which (especially for a play by a woman) are few and far between.

And it was fine. Not brilliant, not especially profound, not the best thing since sliced bread. But fine.

I liked it better than Ellen did. It was nicely constructed, with thematic notes sounded in the first act picked up and elaborated in the second act. The characters were appealing, all of them struggling, in their various ways, with the strictures and enforced silences of late 19th Century society. If anything, it tried a little too hard to hit all the high points: the infantilization of women, class/race issues (rolled up into one rather too-neat package in the person of a black wet-nurse), domestic neglect, romance and art (represented by a mildly Luddite Brit artist called Leo Irving, who had gone to school with John Ruskin. The result was a touch breathless and (dare I say it) maybe too neat for my tastes, especially given the emotional messiness of the subject.

The acting was grand. Laura Benanti as the up-to-date doctor's wife with the inadequate milk and the stultifyingly boring life was delightfully bouncy and talkative, like a friendly puppy who doesn't get enough exercise. Michael Cerveris (who made an oddly passive and very depressed demon barber in Sweeney Todd a couple of years ago) was stiffly correct and just a little pathetic as the doctor crusading for the better living for women through science.

And the costumes! The play is set in the 1890's, which meant bustles and overskirts and underskirts and bodices with two sets of sleeves and bobble fringe lavishly all over everything. The middle-class women looked like high-end window treatments, in shades of magenta and scarlet and electric blue. I particularly liked the fact that Mrs. Givings's dresses matched her parlor until the last scene, when she broke out in screaming purple and unbridled (relatively speaking) passion.

What I didn't like so much was the playwright's decision not to give the Givingses any servants. I couldn't help wondering, as Mrs. Givings complained of how bored she was doing nothing but making tea, who cooked her dinners, washed her baby's diapers, cleaned her house, washed and mended her husband's clothes and her own, polished the family shoes, baked the bread, etc. etc. etc. I even wondered who (before the advent of the wet-nurse, hired half-way through the first act) was looking after the baby when she was serving tea in the parlor. Perhaps it's just me, being a social history geek (which I most definitely am). But it did make me aware that I was watching a costume drama when what I wanted to be watching was a historical play.

It's clever, though, and funny, and very, very pretty to look at. And the last scene is truly lovely. And the scene with the young artist and the Chattanooga vibrator is absolutely worth the price of admission.

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