In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)

Yes, Michael Cerveris was naked and I was seated on the naked side and enjoyed everything I saw.

Is this crude? Well, I have seen approximately 10 billion women naked on film in my lifetime without anybody thinking that was a big deal, so when I have seen an equal number of men naked on stage, I will stop talking about it. Until such time as that happens: that will never happen.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

It is the 1880s, just after the invention of electricity, and the affliction du jour is female hysteria or, literally, "disease of the womb." (Perhaps you have read "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman? That's a fun story.) Here, women displaying signs of "nervousness" are brought to the well-appointed home office of Dr. Givings (Cerveris), who applies treatment by means of an electrical vibrator—without observing that the curative itself is more sensual than strictly therapeutic. In other words, this is a man with zero knowledge of female orgasms, female stimulation, female sexual urges, and females, which appears to be the defining characteristic of both the Victorian-era doctor and the Victorian-era male. Who of course were one and the same.

Oh ho! I'm just the kind of feminist everybody loves!

Anyhow, into his office comes the excitable Mrs. Daldry (the aptly named Maria Dizzia), trailing her befuddled husband, whose chief complaint in regards to her current manic-depressive state is that she's no longer capable of giving him the sort of pleasure he's seeking. AND I HOPE YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN BY "PLEASURE." Because I'm running out of euphemisms. And lo, with the flip of a switch and amidst a great deal of passionate moaning, Mrs. Daldry's fortunes immediately begin to turn. That both the disease and the cure are infinitely more complicated, however, escapes the good doctor entirely. A genial and genuinely caring man, he is nevertheless in the business of patting these women on the head and sending them on their way at the end of each session. Such are the times.

His inclination is much the same with his young wife, Catherine, played by Laura Benanti, a bright and chirpy beauty who's frustrated by the fact that her husband's attention is directed at everyone and everything but her, and no less so by her inability to nurse her own newborn child. Unfulfilled by the only two roles she's fit to play, Catherine reaches out to whoever is available to her at the moment—be it the blossoming Mrs. Daldry; Elizabeth (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), the wet nurse she hires to feed her daughter; or one of Dr. Givings' few male patients, an artist played by Chandler Williams who's come to seek solace for a broken heart.

She also spends a fair amount of time listening through the door to what goes on in the next room of her own house, and finally can't resist breaking in and trying the contraption out on herself. With sensation comes revelation, and as she compares her experience with Mrs. Daldry's and even presses her disapproving husband to practice his "therapy" on her, she comes to understand exactly what's happening to her body and her soul, and that both are in danger of fading away.

It's not a perfect show by any means, and I could bicker about the pacing (erratic) or the length (too much), or tell you the plot looped back on itself one too many times and how not all the storylines added up, or how I thought maybe Laura Benanti was supposed to be visiting from the future (so anachronistic were her line readings), but her character—all chipmunk enthusiasm in lush autumn colors—and the actors and the play itself were so winning that I just leaned back in my far right orchestra seat and let it all wash in.

Likewise I stopped tracing the actual moral of the story halfway through and focused on the relationships, and the way all of these characters came up against the gulfs that separated them because they had no language for what they needed. And in the end it seemed to be not about vibrators or sex or even female empowerment, but electricity itself—those currents that run between people, man to woman, woman to woman, mother to child. Learning how to make those connections that allow us to see each other as full human beings. Learning how to talk to each other and how to hear. How to reach out, how to touch and be touched. The simple longing for it was palpable.

And the closing image, of Michael Cerveris lying naked in the moonlight, with Laura Benanti stretching herself on top of him—her arms and legs sweeping the ground with his as they form a snow angel in a winter garden—this is communion, I thought. Not the physical act of it, but the understanding that brought them to it. This is reaching out to another person, and finally touching.