A repressed doctor’s wife (Jennifer Kuenzer) and a foppish patient (Evan Michael Woods) become entwined in a complicated relationship. (Photo courtesy Kris Ikejiri)

Part farce, part tragedy, ‘Next Room’ eventually hits the spot

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Executive Editor
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America, recently removed from the doldrums of the Civil War and on the brink of modernity with the advancements of the Technological Revolution, still cannot escape its inherent Victorianism. Electrification, automobiles and long-distance communication have transformed society’s abilities but not its mores. Women are still corseted and treated paternalistically by their husbands; personal fulfillment as a concept, especially for women, doesn’t exist. (Is it any wonder that Freud developed the idea of psychoanalysis around the same time?)

That’s true for Mrs. Givings (Jennifer Kuenzer), the wife of a prominent gynecologist (David Meglino). She’s recently given birth but cannot produce breast milk in sufficient quantities to feed her daughter, so her husband hires an African-American wet nurse (Sky Williams). Simultaneously, one of the doctor’s patients, a frigid young socialite named Mrs. Daldry (Mindy Neuendorff), is unable to satisfy her own husband (Robert San Juan)… or be satisfied by him. Dr. Givings diagnoses her with “hysteria,” and prescribes a “treatment” involving his new electric stimulation device… and proceeds to masturbate his client to orgas… sorry, “paroxysm.”

It would be the stuff of farce if it weren’t based on historical fact, and Sarah Ruhl’s play In The Next Room (Or The Vibrator Play), now at the Bath House Cultural Center, combines the two, with mixed success. The farce aspect gets laden with (perhaps unavoidable) slow pacing: Just getting people in and out of their garments is a dull routine, although also part of the point — these people are dinosaurs in the modern world, as caged by whale-bone and petticoats as by provincial morality. The humor — and there is plenty of it by way of situational satire — never gains much momentum from scene to scene.

And then Act 2 begins, and the game changes — first by the entrance of Leo (Evan Michael Woods), a rare instance of a man suffering from hysteria (and similarly treated by his own phallic implement), and second by the elevation of the acting. Woods’ energetic Romanticism is charmingly tone-deaf to the woman around him; Neuendorff’s realization of her feeling for the doctor’s assistant (Katlin Moon-Jones) is both sad and sweet. But Williams and Kuenzer both steal scenes near the end where their exploration of their own predicaments, hemmed in by convention, produce legitimate “wow” moments. It takes a lot of foreplay, but the payoff is ultimately satisfying.