BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
A frisky new comedy equally naughty and nice in contents, "In the Next Room or the vibrator play" is Sarah Ruhl's thoughtful consideration of sex and the Victorian woman.
Until now, the increasingly recognized Ruhl has been represented by strangely mystical works like "The Clean House" and "Eurydice," but her latest play straightforwardly centers upon a doctor and his wife who reside in a New York spa resort of the 1880s.
The fussy period decor of the couple's home — represented by their overstuffed parlor and the doctor's adjacent examining room — is reinforced by the authentic late Victorian interior of the Lyceum Theatre, where Lincoln Center Theater's winning production opened Thursday.A kindly physician, Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris) successfully treats women for "hysteria" — basic sexual frustration — through a new-fangled electrical machine that brings them immediate relief. This scientific wonder, of course, is a vibrator.
The opening scene shows the device's galvanizing effect upon a new patient, Mrs. Daldry (Maria Dizzia), whose lady-like reaction to her very first orgasm proves hilarious and touching.
Overhearing all those odd noises coming from the next room, Givings' unenlightened wife, Catherine (Laura Benanti), becomes exceedingly curious.
A sweet, artless chatterbox, Catherine has other frustrations, not least of which is engaging Elizabeth (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) as a wet nurse for her infant daughter. A lovesick painter (Chandler Williams), the doctor's sympathetic attendant (Wendy Rich Stetson) and clueless Mr. Daldry (Thomas Jay Ryan) also figure into the story.
This doll wife's eventual wising up to her corseted existence is the line upon which Ruhl hangs some interesting thoughts regarding social restrictions, pre-Freudian sexuality, motherhood, male attitudes and similar themes. Ruhl's cunning use of genteel dialogue in ribald circumstances heightens the comedy, as when the doctor makes small talk while treating a quivering Mrs. Daldry.
Humorous in nature and compassionate in viewpoint, the play has been tactfully directed by Les Waters. Intimate moments involving the vibrator transpire in flurries of petticoats and surgical drapery far more comical than vulgar. Designer Annie Smart's charming set (what, no yellow wallpaper?) and David Zinn's beautiful 1880s costumes provide suitably classy looks. Prepare for a visual surprise at the happy ending.
Not an easy piece to perform — balancing period manners with contemporary humor is tricky — the play benefits from Waters' sure but gentle staging and the excellence of his actors. Best known for her musical theater roles, the Kinnelon-bred Benanti is perfectly adorable as the ultra-ingenuous Catherine. If her acting style seems a trifle modern in comparison to the others, kindly remember her character represents a fresh spirit in a musty world. Another notable from musicals, Cerveris portrays the doctor earnestly with a cultured voice and a preoccupied manner.
The remainder of the company is top-notch, with special kudos to Dizzia for embodying Mrs. Daldry's electrifying experience so adroitly.
"In the Next Room or the vibrator play" continues through Jan.10 at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.lct.org.