In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

Auckland Theatre Company
Maidment Theatre, Auckland | March 15-April 7

A mix of incisive intelligence and bawdy, balls-out comedy, In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), is another slam-dunk for Auckland Theatre Company in what is shaping up to be another impressive season from them. An effervescent cast and some impressive design elements anchors Sarah Ruhl’s intelligent, often challenging play in a touching, raw emotion.

The play is set in the late 19th century just after the advent of electricity, and revolves around the treatment of hysteria in women with a modern device—the titular vibrator. The doctor administering the treatment is Dr. Givings (Adam Gardiner), a meek man fascinated in electricity and what it means for the world, but the play largely follows his wife, Katherine (Anna Julienne). Ruhl is concerned more with Katherine’s curiosity about the device, what her husband does, and her inner loneliness. This loneliness is only heightened by her husband’s distance from her and her own inability to produce milk for their newborn child. When one of Dr. Givings’s patients, Mrs. Daldry (Toni Potter), returns for many sessions, Katherine’s curiosity overcomes her and she sets about finding out what both the instrument and her husband really do.

Ruhl is a playwright of immense intelligence and this play is a perfect demonstration of that. It’s both a hilarious comedy, with some very sharp zingers that are well-delivered by the cast and a lot of outrageous physical comedy—for instance, any moment when the device is being used—but it’s also a keen study of intimacy and the role it plays in the everyday lives of these characters, and particularly these women. The machine can give all the release that they desire, but it’s only when they achieve intimacy with another person, whether it be the nurse, the doctor or their husbands, does the pleasure really come. It’s a credit to Ruhl that the play never talks down to these characters and their realisations and growth are as authentic as the comedy is.

Credit is also due to the uniformly excellent cast, who play their characters with a genuine ignorance of their conditions, and then their growths into themselves with elegance. From Adam Gardiner’s rambling enthusiasm, to Hera Dunleavy’s kindly Sapphic nurse, to Lavinia Uhila’s no-nonsense, straight-laced wet-nurse, the cast is a delight. Of particular note are Toni Potter and Anna Julienne, who share one of the play’s best moments before the interval—a master class of physical comedy and facial expressions that’s hard to explain, but is one of the funniest things I’ve seen onstage in a long time. Potter plays Mrs. Daldry with a tentative awkwardness that blooms into an eager forthrightness believably; every time she got ready for treatment was a great laugh, but it’s really the scenes with the Annie, the nurse, that show this character’s true desires, and where Potter really shines.

Julienne is undoubtedly the star of the show, grounding the curious, optimistic Katherine with a quiet gravitas that builds over the show to a blazing anger and a giant black hole of need that gives the play its most gripping, touching moments. Julienne’s unique physicality and magnetic stage presence make it a joy to watch her, whether she’s playing around with the device or simply moving across the stage in her magnificent dress.

And speaking of the dresses, Elizabeth Whiting’s costumes are flat-out brilliant. Not only are they gorgeous to look at, especially the costumes for Katherine and Mr. Daldry, but the layers also accentuate just how covered up and isolated these characters are from each other. When all these layers finally do come off, we’re seeing these characters at their most raw and most emotionally naked.

Rachael Walker’s set design is also gorgeous, underscoring the differences between the two rooms. The living room is full of life, light and culture, whereas the doctor’s room is devoid of all that; ironic given what goes on in both rooms, with women attaining pleasure in one while suffering silently, and eventually not-so-silently in the other. The electrical wires criss-crossing the top of the stage give the play some texture as well, showing how electricity is slowly encroaching on every element of these character’s lives. Of note is also John Gibson’s score, working both as a beautiful transition and to highlight the most emotional moments of the play.

Colin McColl’s direction is also to be commended. He manages the play’s tonal shifts with aplomb and keeps the play moving along at a quick speed. It isn’t a short play by any means, but both acts blew by as if they were fifteen minutes long. He also allows all the exemplary elements of the play to come together in the final moments; the costumes come off, the set seems to fade away, and we’re left with just two characters, Dr. Givings and Katherine, finally discovering themselves. It’s a fitting ending to a play that seems, on the surface, simply a great comedy, but soon enough is revealed as a touching portrayal of the human need for intimacy.