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Anson Stevens-Bollen

I Kept Stroking the Cat

Santa Fe Playhouse brings color to our cheeks

May 5, 2017, 2:45 pm

“The poor thing is languishing without a human touch,” the doctor’s wife says of the piano in her parlor. “It’s like a piece of dead wood without being played.”

Spoken in the first act of In The Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), an incredible production up now at the Santa Fe Playhouse, with those words Mrs. Givings tells her husband’s patient Mrs. Daldry all that is wrong with her home—and, as we come to find, all that is wrong with everyone around them.

The premise of the play is, on a shallow level, quite amusing: It’s the 1880s, and doctors have begun to treat “hysterical” women with electric vibrators. Yes, that kind of vibrator.

“We need to release the pressure on her nerves,” says the initially affable Dr. Givings (played by Marty Madden) of frigid Mrs. Daldry (Mairi Chanel). There is an excess buildup of liquid/fluid/juices (whichever word makes you most uncomfortable) in her womb, the doctor says, and the only way to expel it is with a paroxysm. In this context, of course, that means an orgasm. A daily orgasm. Perhaps multiple per day, in fact, and often in quick succession. It’s science, you see.

In the Givings home, “in the next room” is a euphemism for being in the operating theater, and the operating theater is a euphemism for the room in which Dr. Givings, with the aid of his matronly assistant Annie (a charming and multifaceted Jennifer Graves, who only impresses us more with each scene), administers the treatments—ideally with the electric device, but occasionally “manually,” if the power goes out.

When Mrs. Daldry first enters the Givings home, she is sallow and seems full of dread. A la The Yellow Wallpaper, she is being driven insane by “ghosts” in the green curtains in her home. She cannot have a child. Light bothers her. Mr. Daldry (John Widell) and Dr. Givings both agree that she is suffering from a clear case of hysteria.

These people have, like, so many orgasms.
Lynn Roylance

Chanel, as Mrs. Daldry, is positively inconsolable at show’s open. She is uneasy and unsure, doubtful of Dr. Givings’ chances of success and hesitant to try. But he lulls her back on his operating table and it isn’t long before she’s convulsing in something she soon decides is pleasure. After, Chanel’s expression is expertly transformed—she looks downright “refreshed,” a word that gets used so often here it eventually loses meaning.

“Many of the patients complain about being drowsy after the treatment,” Dr. Givings tells Mrs. Daldry amiably as she sits up again. Not to worry.

In addition to the evolution and popularity of Dr. Givings’ treatments, his bubbly, talkative, awkward and ultimately incredibly anxious wife, played by lovable Isabel Madley, struggles with the need for a wet nurse for her newborn. As it happens, the Daldrys offer the services of their housekeeper Elizabeth (Andrea Fofanah), an African-American woman who could have, given the time period, been born a slave. Elizabeth has recently lost a baby to cholera. Earnest conversations about virtue and breastfeeding and milk production ensue, all while cries from endless orgasms come from the next room. It puts into strange contrast the Victorian hidden-ankle modesty and the objectification of a woman’s breast as an employable thing, not to mention an underlying voracious sexuality as Mrs. Givings learns more about her husband’s practice and a hapless, doddering Mr. Daldry misses every last social cue.

In the second act we meet Leo, a young painter freshly back from Italy and newly broken-hearted. He, too, is in a fit of hysteria and he, too, is treated with a vibrator. Hamilton Turner plays Leo uncomfortably well. The guy is so at ease, but such a tool. He pontificates about art and Italian women, and tries amorously to get the (married) women milling around the Givings household to sit for a painting. Turns out Leo is also really into ass play, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, the “treatment” seems to have the opposite effect on him—he just becomes more insufferable as the play goes on.

We were particularly struck by just how much these actors made us care about the characters. In no way would we dream of leaving early and risk not knowing what happens to the relationships as they bend and twist around each other. Madley, as a petulant Mrs. Givings, isn’t annoying even when she does annoying things (like babble about “having extra children, just in case” around Elizabeth, who just lost a child)—her immature, frothy energy is somehow endearing and forgivable and we do nothing but root for her as she tries to convince her husband that she, too, is worth “treating” in the way he treats the whole neighborhood, it seems.

As Dr. Givings, Madden really comes into his own in the second act. The first-act doctor is “a man of science,” as he often repeats while he emotionlessly fondles his patients. Once they reach climax, he simply leaves to wash his hands. But as he evolves, pushed along by Mrs. Givings, Madden expertly shows a seismic shift, right when we were about to give up on the character.

Dr. Givings, in describing his childhood interest in electricity, says that he watched the lights of static dance on the family pet. “Stop stroking the cat! You’ll start a fire!” his mother would yell.

But, he adds: “…I kept stroking the cat.” (The audience chuckled. Stroke the pussy, push the boundaries, stress the limits of human decency. Go ahead, do it.)

The cacophony of orgasms and sexual tension and piano-playing and scandalous cheek-touching build and build and build, both well-written by playwright Sarah Ruhl and fantastically directed here by Monique Lacoste. When the clenched fists are almost too tight to bear, when you’ve held your breath for an entire scene, when you can’t bear not knowing this will end, suddenly, there is an intense, unexpectedly poignant release—and man, is it good.


In The Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)

7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays May 4-20;
2 pm Sundays May 7-21. $15-$30.
Santa Fe Playhouse, 142 E De Vargas St.,

 

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