September 2, 2010 | by Patrick Folliard
'Vibrator' hums with farcical humor

Thomas Edison’s discoveries changed the world and the electricity-happy Dr. Givings in Woolly Mammoth’s pleasing season opener — “In the Next Room or the vibrator play” — is eager to let everyone know it. Thanks to his idol’s inventions, Givings’ office lights up with the flick of a switch and his vibrators run automatically.

For a late 1880s doctor like Givings, these quivering and humming devices are decidedly not sex toys, but rather miraculous tools of the trade designed to treat women (and occasionally men) suffering from “hysteria,” a condition whose symptoms included fainting, nervousness, insomnia and loss of appetite for food or sex.

Penned by never-boring playwright Sarah Ruhl, the 2009 comedy presents a moment in the rather astounding history of electric vibratory vulvalar and prostate massage. The practice is no playwright’s creation. In fact, the legendary bisexual anarchist Emma Goldman lent her talents to the cause when she opened a massage parlor in New York City at the turn of the century. Equally interesting, Ruhl’s play intriguingly explores women’s attitudes about autonomy, sex and love.

Like a broken doll, Sabrina Daldry (Kimberly Gilbert) is delivered by her husband, Mr. Daldry (stentorian-voiced James Konicek) to the very efficient Dr. Givings (Eric Hissom) for mending. Sabrina suffers from nervous exhaustion. Her fingers are no longer good for piano playing – or anything else, Mr. Daldry naughtily quips. Offended, the rattled patient threatens to leave at once, but instead submits to the doctor’s treatment as planned. After experiencing her first “paroxysm,” she happily signs on for daily appointments.

At Sabrina’s next session, an electrical unexpectedly outage occurs. Without missing a beat, the good doctor orders his very able assistant Annie (played with comic precision and poignancy by lesbian actor Sarah Marshall) to take over using the manual method. Clearly experienced in the task, Annie expertly delivers toe-curling results surpassing even those of the new-fangled machine. In a later session with the doctor and the vibrator, Sabrina tellingly screams out “Annie!” at the climax of her treatment.

Dr. Givings’ lively young wife Catherine (Katie deBuys) is understandably curious about what goes on in the other room. With her ear pressed against the wall that separates the living room from her husband’s office, she listens to the ongoing buzzing sound overridden by intermittent moans and yelps.

Lonely and restless, Catherine awkwardly befriends her husband’s patients: First it’s Sabrina who rather hilariously introduces her to the vibrating gadget. And later she develops an unrequited crush on one of her husband’s few male patients, handsome artist Leo Irving (a wonderfully over-the-top Cody Nickell). Recently returned from Italy, he is suffering the effects of a broken heart. Not to worry though, by applying electric massage from behind, the doctor prods the willing bohemian back to rosy good health.

Woolly’s first rate cast has great fun with the farcical elements of the show, but it’s not all faked orgasms and sex toys. Both Sabrina and Catherine are seriously unfulfilled. While the former blossoms from frequent treatments, she remains in a loveless marriage, afraid to pursue her same sex-desires. Meanwhile, the latter watches as her own baby and the man she thinks she loves both eschew her for the Madonna-like (Raphael not Ciccone) wet nurse (Jessica Frances Dukes).

Superbly staged by Aaron Posner, the production is exceedingly well-acted and designed: Helen Q. Huang’s stylish ladies’ costumes feature fashionable bustles, constricting corsets and long, straight skirts. Daniel Conway’s terrifically clever set is inspired by a Victorian operating theater.

‘In the Next Room or the vibrator play’
Through Sept. 26
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D Street, N.W.
$15-$65
Woolly’s site

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