Would it be too crass to admit that I lost count of the number of paroxysms experienced by Yael Berkovich as Mrs. Daldry, the patient being treated for out-of-control hysteria by the good – if slightly unconventional - Dr Givings. We’re in a private clinic, post Civil War sometime in the dawn of Thomas Edison’s discovery of the varied uses of electricity and Dr. G has discovered that electronic stimulation of a woman’s nether regions produces some wondrous and quite happy results in the recipients of said treatment.
Does it ever. Sabrina Daldry enters the offices terrified, shrouded in black, flinging herself against walls and erupting into tears at the mention of babies. Stripped down to her undergarments and with a unusual looking mechanical device placed under her petticoats, Mrs. Daldry is buzzed, shaken and transported to some kind of heaven. As this is transpiring, Berkowitz hums and sings, gasps and practically yodels while the stoic Dr. Givings (played by Michael Oosterom) stimulates away. “I will tell you an amusing story,” he says in a flat hugely un-erotic tone. By sheer coincidence, I had been watching “Young Frankenstein” the night before, during which first Madeline Kahn and then Teri Garr break into “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life!” during monstrous intercourse. Given the sheer number of climaxes she receives, Berkovich, who whose leg levitates in ecstasy, can out-paroxysm both of the “Frankenstein” dames.
But I digress. The subject is orgasms. And vibrators.
And Sarah Ruhl, whose Pulitzer nominated comedy “In The Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)” gets a smart and rather wicked production courtesy of The Production Company director August Viverito and his to-the-manner born cast. Performing at the Secret Rose Theatre, where The Production Company is in residence, Viverito and team take Ruhl’s Wilde-an comedy to both emotional and comic heights. Berkovich - not playing the main character – is a scene stealing supernova, certainly, but there’s plenty more going on here beyond the delights of Mrs. Daldry.
Catherine, the Dcotor’s wife (Joanna Strapp) has no knowledge of the type of treatment her husband prescribes. The understanding, within this still Victorian sensibility, is that this kind of hysteria treatment is neither seemly nor necessary for a proper upper class physician’s wife like Mrs. Givings. So the doctor’s wife remains out in the parlor while the patients go “in the next room” and shut the door. Annie the midwife (Elizabeth Southard) assists the doctor and Catherine is stuck, largely bored and neglected even when her husband is not stimulating his patients. Meanwhile, Catherine is going quietly mad over her inability to produce enough milk to nurse her baby. As it happens, Mr. and Mrs. Daldry can assist. Though Mrs. Daldry is childless, her black maid Elizabeth (Candace Ncholas-Lippman) recently lost an infant and is therefore able to be a more than capable midwife.
We are presented, therefore, with a series of characters (mostly women) whose lives are missing a critical element, be it a child, intimacy, knowledge, peace of mind. Ruhl’s positioning of, of all things, a vibrator as a conduit to fulfillment in some cases, discussion in others, is a kind of narrative masterstroke. You can bet that Catherine will find her way into the next room, that there will be more discoveries, more lessons and more fallout over how long it has taken for these lessons to be taught (and learnt). The suggestion that in fact these crazy paroxysms have been known to accompany an even more intimate act between men and women leaves Mrs. Daldry and Mrs. Givings positively agape. It makes for a wonderful comic realization - one of many – and is handled with great humorous brio by Strapp and Berkovich.
“In the Next Room” is Catherine’s play and Strapp – her hair piled high, her eyes ever curious – offers a portrait of a woman decidedly at a crossroads. During an early exchange, Mrs. Givings and Sabrina’s husband Dick Daldry (Michael Zemenick), the question arises over when it makes sense to use an umbrella and when to just plain get wet. Strapp nails her position, laying the groundwork for the bit of rebellion that is to come.
Among the men, Oosterom is equally dead on in not overplaying the Doctor’s stuffiness. “I will never understand women,” he says in one of the play’s many ironic observations. Well, he’d better understand them a little bit in order for us to root for the resolution that we get. Ben Gillman takes things a bit farther over-the-top than the rest of his castmates as Leo Irving, an artist receiving his own treatment from Dr. Givings.
The play was Tony and Pulitzer Prize nominated and marked Ruhl’s Broadway debut. In this its intimate L.A. theater premiere, The Production Company makes it sing, hum and buzz.
“In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play” plays 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 3 p.m. Sun.; through Sept. 28 at the Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. $30. (800) 838-3006, www.theprodco.com.