Review: ‘In the Next Room’

Sep. 22, 2015 | 0 Comments

REVIEW BY BRETT OPPEGAARD / Special to the Star-Advertiser

Manoa Valley Theatre’s latest production features a machine that mechanically gives people pleasure. Not a smartphone – although it does vibrate – this gadget is applied to any situation in which people feel a sense of “hysteria,” soothing them through its pulsating electric touch.

next room

‘IN THE NEXT ROOM’

Presented by Manoa Valley Theatre

» Where: Manoa Valley Theatre, 2833 E. Manoa Rd.
» When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 4
» Cost: $39 general admission; $34 for seniors and military (with valid ID); $20 for those 25 and younger
» Info: (808) 988-6131, www.manoavalleytheatre.com

To emphasize humanity’s naiveté of new technologies and their ultimate effects, “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play,” continuing through Oct. 4, illustrates its ideas through the story of a physician in the 1880s experimenting with a loudly humming apparatus that gets applied to patients in their erogenous zones.

This was a time period, at the dawn of electricity, when the public marveled at the potential we have to control power, circulating a film and causing a stir, for example, by showing the electrocution of an elephant named Topsy at Coney Island.

Playwright Sarah Ruhl was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for this script, which has some comedic elements but also delves into darker issues, ranging from a general loss of intimacy among people, furthered by our technologies, and the travails of motherhood, including discussions about a death of a baby. Steeped in the history of the period, with references to the pervasive celebrity of Thomas Edison, this show integrates a variety of quirky footnotes about how people lived in that bygone era, illuminating both similarities with contemporary ideals but also commonplace activities and actions that now seem absurd. One only can imagine what our lives – and our technologies – will look like to people 150 years from now.

Like couch potatoes flipping through TV channels, the characters in this piece quickly raise and discard societal issues of varying levels of importance, including the inherent conflict between science and religion, the causes and effects of racial and social discrimination, matters of manners and etiquette, roots of sexual orientation, and the various kinds of love, such as Platonic love, love of country, love of God, etc., all of which loosely tie back to the vibrating machine.

This scattered approach by Ruhl initiates some interesting discussions among characters but then often lets them unsatisfyingly drop, usually to play the one-note joke about “the treatment” taking place. The MVT set gets split into two Victorian-era rooms: a formal parlor and the “operating theater,” which primarily focuses upon the table where the procedures are administered. The actors generally perform their parts well enough, but the machine continually upstages them. Some of that is related to the script, and some of that is related to the staging, and framing of the show, in which the naughtiness of the idea seems to be given more weight than the performers or performances.

Rasa Fournier, playing the wife of the doctor, has a lament at one point, for example, in which she wistfully talks about what could be considered lost when electric bulbs replace candles. The beauty and quality of the candlelight is but one part of the description, which includes the tactile nature of wax on the fingers, the smell of smoke in the air, the inhaling and exhaling of the breath it takes to extinguish a flame and even the dangers one faces of having open fire in wooden structures.

This kind of argument against progressive technology could have been prominently contrasted with the doctor’s equally persuasive arguments for pursuing science and gadgetry as a way to continually improve living conditions. Instead, though, moments of such insight whiz by in this work, seemingly to make way for the next scene in which someone can get titillatingly “treated.”

Ironically, or not, this show ends up seeming impersonal and cold. The characters hint at their rich backstories and make cursory links to the broader issues. The actors present some development of those connections and give glimpses of what could be. But the focus of this staging keeps coming back to the machine and its heavily weighted presence in this situation, rather than introducing it and letting it gradually fade into the background.

At the performance I attended, at least, the actors were given polite applause at the curtain call, but the loudest ovation came when – as one might gesture toward the musicians in the orchestra – they instead pointed to the vibrating machine.

“In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play,” directed by Victoria Gail-White, with assistance by Lanaly Cabalo; costume design by Carlynn Wolfe; set design by DeAnne Kennedy; light design by Janine Myers; sound design by Walid Alhamdy; hair and makeup design by Lisa Ponce de Leon; associate producer, Bree Kale’a Peters; technical director, Newton Koshi; and props design by Sara Ward. With Rasa Fournier (Catherine Givings), Kevin Keaveney (Dr. Givings), Therese Olival (Sabrina Daldry), Cindy Ramirez (Annie), Nicholas Myers (Leo Irving), Allison Paynter (Elizabeth), and Steve Royal (Mr. Daldry).

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