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No Sex Please, We're Victorian

According to Victorian medical wisdom circa 1878, there is no connection whatsoever between sexuality and pleasure. Goodness no. An orgasm was  described as a medicinal paroxysm and thus the successful conclusion of a medically-controlled doctor assisted therapy. This disconnect between mind and body is the crux of Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play,” at Berkeley Rep.

Any play with the word vibrator in the title and Victorian ladies dropping their knickers and leaping onto the orgasm table is well on its way to a being both a sure-fire hit and a resounding crowd-pleaser.  And indeed, the play, a world premiere, is certainly a reliable stimulator. Which is not to say that the experience is wholly satisfying.

The play hinges on the curious fact that shortly after the invention of electricity, the vibrator was invented. Ruhl follows the thoroughly entertaining collision of Victorian repression and inadvertent sexual awakening. From our 21st century stance, we’re observing an anthropological dramatization of  the Victorian female.  But it’s historic sociology by way of Woody Allen’s most silly “Everything you Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask.”) Funny, if puerile, sex jokes are to be found aplenty.

Staged with brisk humor by Les Waters, this is a faux-Victorian drawing room comedy, in which characters listen at the door of, conveniently forget their gloves in, and pick the lock of -- "the Next Room."

In the "next room" is where Dr. Givings (an amusing if shopworn display of stuffiness by Paul Niebanck) performs clinical treatments for women suffering from hysteria. The prevailing thought was excess fluid in the womb needed to be released to cure the patient of listlessness…or over-excitement (and anything in between).  A vulvular massage was just the ticket.

On the other side of the door, Givings’ wife Catherine is bursting with curiosity. And she isn’t afraid to ask the ladies who undergo treatment. Where did he put it? Why did you cry out? What did it feel like?  Hannah Cabell plays the vivacious, chatty, child-like and fairly adorable Catherine.

Mostly she asks Sabrina Daldry, a wife whose husband is getting tired of his wife’s moodiness and tears. Turns out, all Mrs. Daldry really needed was a visit to Dr. Feelgood to lift her spirits.

Catherine herself is having a problem with her fluids. As her husband keeps pointing out, her milk (she’s a new mother) isn’t “adequate.” So her husband insists they hire a wet nurse, one whose baby has recently died.

There’s a theme here. Women’s bodies are inadequate and in need of intervention. Emotionally loaded bodily practices are turned into cold transactions. And women are being silly to think otherwise.

There are characters who discuss the upside and the downside of the advent of electricity. A lofty artisté feels electricity creates a soulless luminescence; a light without flame, he says, is like sex without love.

Given the alternatives, these women are drawn to the advantages of electricity. Like moths to a flame.