In the Next Room, or the vibrator play
Arguably the worst, most over-rated new play of the season (which is not too young, but there's time for a worse one) is the Lincoln Center production of In the Next Room. Set in the 1880s in the living room (and the next room) of a Victorian furnished home in a spa town, where electricity has just hit the lamps, behind a beautifully painted curtain that gives us suburbia, this allegedly breakthrough comedy about the big O for women was nothing short of discomfiting.
As raucous laughter permeated the theater at the diagnosed hysteric, Mrs. Daldry, being electronically (and very quickly) helped to orgasm, some of us in the audience wondered what diagnosis might be given for the people who found it... well, hysterically funny. A woman I met at the bus stop on Sixth Avenue after the performance, going home, was personally offended that anyone found a woman's orgasm funny.
Pleasure in women has long been a source of uneasiness in men, and to have bruited this amateurish and ultimately overlong and tedious play as some kind of breakthrough is to me, a woman writer who has written openly and, I hope, well, about women's sexuality, ridiculous. Thick pamphlets, well-designed, passed out in the lobby before the play began chronicling the literary and medical history of orgasm, to give the thesis of the play heft and moment, could not make up for the truth that the fabric of the play had neither. And not a real plot, either, yet.
None of the characters is particularly sympathetic, including the wife of the doctor performing the electronic massage under the sheet that induces a 'paroxysm' in the patient, and paroxysms of laughter from (by the sound of it) men in the audience. The wife, played by an indisputably attractive but in my opinion unmoving Laura Benanti, Tony Award winner for her performance in Patti LuPone's Gypsy, which I had left at intermission, so frightened was I by Miss Lupone's aggressive attack on the songs (and Herbie) in the first act that I was fearful her Rose's Turn might kill me, so missed Benanti's star turn in the second act, something I rued until last night. Her at once swift and almost catatonic recitation of her lines was characterized by the woman at the bus stop as shallow, to which I shall add 'jejune,' a word I have never fully appreciated (or used) till now. Her husband the doctor, played by an unassuming Michael Cerveris who is given the opportunity to strip naked for the final scene, which takes place on a moving stage filled with snow, which must have cost a cold bundle, and is gratuitous, to put it mildly. If they were finally going to have a good fuck, they could have done it on the couch. The black wet nurse, played by Quincy Tyler Bernstine, is given more weight than made any sense, though she looked solemn and sad enough, but certainly gave no clue why she might inspire the overwrought passion of the painter Leo Irving, whose hysteria is a mental block, unloosed by electric anal penetration. There was a picture of John Barrymore in the very old, dankly colorful Lyceum theater, so I was hoping his ghost might be fluttering about so he could see someone could finally out-ham him. Mrs. Daldry's husband, played by Thomas Jay Ryan, is a cipher. And last, but least, is Annie, the assistant to the doctor who inexplicably erupts with lesbian longings at the good piano playing of Mrs. Daldry. And it is good, to give the poor woman her due.
This was allegedly directed by Lee Waters, but I could detect no sign of a guiding hand, and felt the play, such as it was, would have better benefited from Basil Beckett Burwell, who directed the Christmas pageant at the Cherry Lawn School our sophomore year. I have nothing but admiration for Lincoln Center, and the good things it does. This is not one of them.