"How extraordinary," Catherine Givings observes. "It looks like a farming tool. Where do you put it?"
Sarah Ruhl _ MacArthur "genius" grant recipient, upstart playwright, woman, wife, mother _ has arrived at her Broadway moment with an electrifying effort that uses a big, buzzing box to explore some of humankind's most dangerous places: real intimacy, life-transforming technology and the limitless nature of medical science.
The work: "In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)." The place: A prosperous spa town outside New York City. The time: circa 1880s, at the realization of Thomas Edison's dream for mass distribution of electricity.
The story line?
Before the relentless, digital spread of pornography and Meg Ryan's sumptuous deli scene in "When Harry Met Sally...," some doctors believed that women suffering "hysterical symptoms" could be cured through assisted "paroxysms." The men of science used boxy, plug-in contraptions with hoses and ceramic baubles on the ends to release pent-up "juices" in the wombs of patients as a cure for anxiety, headaches and sleeplessness.
Before the devices came along, doctors used their fingers to administer the treatment. It's all there in historical accounts that inspired Ruhl, though her ensemble work directed by Les Waters is about much, much more than the machine behind an unassuming door that separates Catherine's living room from her doctor-husband's "operating theater." The adjacent rooms are in simultaneous use on stage at the Lyceum Theatre.
The narrative framework is unusual, but it speaks loudly about emotionally unavailable men and childlike wives, some of whom _ Catherine (Laura Benanti) among them _ are desperate to connect on a more fulfilling level at just about any cost.
"At a young age, we all know what a woman is supposed to look like, sound like, be like when she is opened in that way," says Benanti, who won a Tony for her portrayal of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee in the 2008 revival of "Gypsy."
"In the Victorian age, nobody was telling you how you should feel. Mostly, they were telling you not to, but in private moments ... you see what people have always wanted and continue to want _ a genuine human connection."
Ruhl came up with the idea when the Berkeley Repertory Theatre commissioned her to write a play. At the time, she was breast-feeding her now nearly 4-year-old daughter and digesting a book, "The Technology of Orgasm" by Rachel Maines. As a new mother, she found herself wondering what it might feel like to have no milk for her baby and what it might have felt like _ or not felt like _ for doctors to perform both the manual and vibrator-assisted treatments on their patients, including some men.
Besides, Ruhl says, "I had always wanted to write a Victorian costume drama."
And so Catherine is finely dressed as a bored, ball of energy with inadequate breast milk for her infant. She's married to the zipped-up Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris) who won't stop yammering about the potential of electricity _ a technology not at all lost on Catherine as she revels in her new lamps, befriends a couple of her husband's artistically bent patients and hires a wet nurse.
Drawn by noises coming from the office during treatment of one Mrs. Daldry (Maria Dizzia), Catherine allows curiosity to get the best of her and picks the lock on the magical door. Catherine and Mrs. Daldry use the machine on each other while Dr. Givings is out at his club one night.
Catherine's time on the vibrator and her exposure to the piano-playing Mrs. Daldry, and a bouncy but melancholy male patient, painter Leo Irving (Chandler Williams), create a yearning in her that culminates in a breakthrough with her husband in their snowy garden.
Ruhl says she wasn't out to shock audiences with her play, including the final act that leaves Dr. Givings completely without clothes as he gives himself over to his wife.
"It's really hard to get a straight play done on Broadway and I think there should be a place for it in New York, so I couldn't be happier," she says.
Cerveris, a Tony winner for his portrayal of John Wilkes Booth in the revival of "Assassins," said the laying bare of Dr. Givings at his wife's desperate urging serves up the strength of Ruhl's storytelling.
"The play makes it clear how little men have understood women historically, and I think that's extraordinarily relevant today," he says. "It seemed a very earned, logical, meaningful place for the character to arrive."
The cast for the limited run that ends Jan. 10 is rounded out in the Lincoln Center Theater production by Thomas Jay Ryan as Mr. Daldry and Quincy Tyler Bernstine as the somber wet nurse Elizabeth, who lost her faith in God when her infant son died and left her full with milk.
It's Elizabeth who connects the dots for Catherine and Mrs. Daldry, that the sensations of the treatment seem a lot like sexual relations with her husband back home. Ruhl considers the character another example, like the labor-saving vibrator machine, of how fundamental human necessities are doled out.
"This notion of compartmentalization and farming out such intimate practices is kind of what the whole play is about," Ruhl says, noting similarities with today's Internet-driven world.
"In general, I have such a conflicted relationship with technology and with this cultural moment," she said. "The whole notion of solitude seems to be shifting. We're increasingly disembodied. It's hard to put ourselves back in that time where there was no electricity."