ST. PETERSBURG — There are a lot of ideas kicking around in Sarah Ruhl's play, In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), which opened last weekend in a handsome staging at freeFall Theatre.
In the first place, it's about women's sexuality, mainly set in the operating theater ("the next room") of a Victorian physician who has discovered the secret to relieving his patients of "hysteria": the newly invented electric vibrator, discretely deployed to the appropriate part of the anatomy by Dr. Givings (Christopher Swan) and his kindly assistant, Annie (Bonnie Agan).
But Ruhl's play is deceptive. Given its ostensible subject matter, orgasm, it would seem to be about sex, and of course it is, but it is just as much a play about the miracles of technology, represented by everyone's fascination with the electric lamp in the doctor's parlor.
In the Next Room is also about the impossible task of men trying to satisfy women, and not just sexually. In her fidgety, headstrong performance as Mrs. Givings, the doctor's wife, Nichole Hamilton communicates a thwarted need to express herself that is reminiscent of Nora, the seminal feminist of Ibsen's A Doll's House. However, if the solution to Mrs. Givings' frustration is just more variety in lovemaking with her husband, then maybe Ruhl merely means to say that good sex is the answer to every problem, which doesn't seem very profound.
Given all these ideas, why was I checking my watch halfway through Act 2 on Friday night? Despite the intelligence and comedy (the vibrator "looks like a farming tool," Mrs. Givings marvels upon first seeing it) at work in Ruhl's play, it lacks dramatic momentum. Part of the problem stems from the mannered style that her script seems to suggest, all deliberate pauses and silences, with much laborious taking off and putting back on of voluminous dresses and petticoats.
The freeFall production, directed by Lisa Powers Tricomi, features fine performances by Swan, tightly composed in his scientific detachment, and Hamilton as the Germaine Greer of 1880s upstate New York. The cast also has a pair of gifted clowns: Meg Heimstead as Mrs. Daldry, the good doctor's most satisfied patient, judging from her demented, bug-eyed climaxes, and Brian Shea as the oafish Mr. Daldry.
Less persuasive are Elizabeth (Trenell Mooring), a beatific African-American wet nurse, and Leo Irving (Drew Valins), an artist torn between prudery and carnal desire. Scott Cooper designed an appropriately fastidious set, and the period costumes by Eric Davis are resplendent.
I must confess to having mixed feelings about Ruhl, one of the most celebrated young playwrights in the United States. I saw another of her plays, The Clean House, several years ago at Banyan Theatre, and it also left me beguiled by her cleverness and precision of language but not exactly on the edge of my seat.
In some ways, Ruhl's success — twice a Pulitzer Prize finalist, winner of a MacArthur "genius'' grant — speaks to a larger issue in American theater, the failure to cultivate compelling women playwrights whose careers endure beyond a hit or two. As a result, a promising talent like her gets overpraised too soon and audiences wonder what all the fuss is about.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.