Arts & Society
On With the Dance! Bowen McCauley Celebrates Its Final Season at the Kennedy Center (photos)
Gary Tischler • October 6, 2010
What can you say about “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)” the latest play by Sarah Ruhl, now at the Woolly Mammoth Theater?
Well, let’s try “aaarrrg”, “yiiiii” “ooohhhhh”, “a – a — a — o”, or “oooohmygddd” with lots of !!!!!!!!.
?Can’t be sure that we’re exactly there, but you are going to hear female and male characters doing symphonic variations loudly on the human soul, heart and other body parts straining for release, with the assistance of an apparently ancient but very effective prop if you go to “In the Next Room”. And you’re likely to feel almost as good as the aforementioned characters do, even without a vibrator.
?You may even think that you know where this play is going. Silly you: this is a Ruhl play, and the rule with Ruhl is that you’re going to get ambushed at every turn with reveries, lyrical side trips, and unexpected behavior by almost all of the characters. Mind you, you do end up where you might wish to have things end up, but the illustration of the climax — all right, conclusion—of the play is a delicious surprise, in the way an unexpected and perfect gift is.
?With Ruhl, you also get a lot to mull over; it’s always almost as if she’s thought through the implication, past, present and future, of every situation and line. Ruhl gets context. This is a play that takes place near the end of the 1900’s, when electricity has just been invented and marketed by Thomas Edison as the harbinger of a new age. ?
We’re in Northeast America somewhere, and Dr. Givings has electricity in his house, which fuels lamps and a dandy little device which he’s more or less invented. The good doctor uses this device — a primitive vibrator — on patients (mostly women) suffering from hysteria, a common malady in the Victorian age. With these corseted women and their sexual feelings, this is done to the point where they must have had trouble breathing.
?Mrs. Givings, a creative chatterbox whose emotional and physical needs haven’t come close to being met by her husband, has had a baby but can’t supply it with sufficient milk. The doctor is busy with patients like Mrs. Daldry, suffering painfully from the effects of too much light. She’s a bundle of nerves accompanied by her husband, a gruff, controlled man with an almost immediate eye for Mrs. Givings. Away, Mrs. Daldry goes into the next room, where Dr. Givings applies his, um, mechanism with the assistance of the implacable Nurse Annie.
?Sure enough, wonders occur after the first application, and even her rigid husband notices that her cheeks have attained a rosy tone, one he has never seen before. The implications of all this are lost on the good doctor himself, who doesn’t know he’s absented himself from his wife or that he’s giving his patients releases and pleasure, as opposed to eliciting a cure. “I ‘m a scientist and a doctor,” he says. “I’m doing good. My patients have to be sick for me to apply the cure.”
?Other things go on in the next room and in the living room, where the new electric lights flicker on and off like fireflies. Mrs. Givings and her husband have decided to hire a wet-nurse for the baby, a black woman whose last child died soon after birth. The artist Leo Irving shows a walking mood swing and personification of the artist who suffers for his art so openly, you want to slap him or seduce him. Mrs. Givings falls a little for the wild-eyed artist. Mrs. Givings insists that her husband apply the vibrator to her. “I have made a mistake,” he moans, for the first time behaving as if he’s paying attention. “This is not for healthy women.” Oh, but it is, it is.
?In some ways the plot is thick and complicated; it seems often like a really smart soap opera. But its real subjects are release, freedom, and yes, love, which are the guardian angels that hover above this play constantly.
?Over the course of the play — which is often inordinately and hilariously funny in a discomfiting way — you can see the future, and you can see how men and women are human beings of gender almost irredeemably separated by a common language, to paraphrase Shaw.
?Ruhl is of course almost something of a supernova among new playwrights — and she’s found a special home at Woolly Mammoth, where her remarkable “The Clean House” was produced five years ago. This play is her most accessible, which is a good thing by my thinking.
?At Woolly, they’ve assembled a terrific cast. None are better than Katie DeBuys as the hungry, seeking, bewitching and wanting to be bewitched Mrs. Givings, around whom everything swirls like a hurricane. She’s sharp, quick, touched to the quick, quirky, seductive, eager, angry, and totally worthy. Kimberly Gilbert as the game Mrs. Daldry adds another touching comedic role to her Woolly repertoire. It’s sometimes a mystery how Gilbert does it — she seems the best kind of actress, performing as if she doesn’t realize she’s in a play.
?Director Aaron Posner, with the critical help of set designer Daniel Conway and costume designer Helen Q. Huang, has created a world for the play to function in. Physically, it moves as fast as the words and recreates a lost world or rather reclaims it for our own times.
?Go see — and hear — what goes on “In the Next Room.” You’ll be enriched.
“In the Next Room” runs through Sept. 19. [gallery ids="99195,103359" nav="thumbs"]
All’s Well for Marsha Mason
Gary Tischler • September 9, 2010
I talked with the actress Marsha Mason in a conference room at the administrative offices of the Shakespeare Theatre Company on Capitol Hill. On the wall were framed black and white photographs of the likes of Stacy Keach and the late Dixie Carter, both of whom had graced STC productions over the years.
Other actors, known for their movie or television work to the general public, have worked here — Kelly McGillis, Elizabeth Ashley, Hal Holbrook and Avery Brooke, among many — and now Mason, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar four times, joins what’s kind of a pantheon here. She will be portraying the Countess Rousillon in Michael Kahn’s production of Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well” which opens the STC season beginning Sept. 7 and running through Oct. 24.
“It’s not a huge part, but it’s a significant one,” Mason said. “Shakespeare wrote a beautiful part for an older woman here, she’s wise, open, a kind of role model for the heroine, Helena.”
“All’s Well” is considered one of Shakespeare’s trickier plays, chronicling a difficult romance between Helena , a radiant, smart, brave heroine who’s way too good for the swain she’s smitten with, the doltish but hunky aristocrat Bertrand. Mason herself is not intimidated.
“I know it’s got that reputation for being ‘difficult,’ but I think Michael has done a terrific job of making the play clear to us today,” she said.
She’s obviously glad to be here, to be working. The issue of women’s roles in movies, television and theater is important to her, which is not surprising given the lasting resonance of her performances, especially the harried, appealing and struggling actress in “The Goodbye Girl” opposite Richard Dreyfuss. Her professional world has changed drastically since she first set out and made her mark in it, shining at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
“Broadway is going through a very alarming phase right now,” she said. “There’s this emphasis on getting movie stars into straight plays, the idea that people won’t come without that. And that may be true — look at what happened to the revival of “‘Brighton Beach Memoirs.’”
Neil Simon’s Tony-winning play has memories and meaning for Mason. She was, after all, married to Simon for a number of years in the 1970s and divorced (amicably) in 1981. “I think everyone in the business was shocked when that closed so quickly and couldn’t be sustained. It said something about theater and Broadway, that’s for sure.”
Mason did some of her best work for Simon, especially “The Goodbye Girl,” which Simon wrote for her, along with “Chapter Two.”
“The scripts Neil wrote, they were gifts, I look at them that way,” she said. “They were certainly gifts for an actress, wonderful parts. She received Oscar nominations for them, and for “Cinderella Liberty” and “Only When I Laugh.”
With “Goodbye Girl” and with “Cinderella Liberty” she took on the mantle of a budding movie star. “I suppose that’s what was happening,” she said. “But I never really thought of myself that way. That’s Hollywood think, it’s not me. I’m an actress, always have been.”
Still, she had a movie star’s appeal: an oval, open face, dark hair, a beauty that managed to have the requisite mystery so that you wouldn’t forget her soon. The beauty and the face are still there, accessible and warm, a little more lived in, but undeniably appealing.
“The business changed,” she said. “I think every woman in Hollywood when she gets older finds the parts beginning to dry up, except maybe Meryl Streep, she can do anything. That’s what happened to me. And it’s only gotten worse, because the powers that be make movies for teenaged boys.”
In 2001, a troubled Mason decided on a major change — she bought a 250-acre farm in New Mexico, created a business, became a biodynamic farmer, while still acting in theater (“Hecuba” in Chicago), parts on television (she had a recurring role in “Frasier”) and movies (a wonderful bit as the gritty Clint Eastwood’s ex in “Heartbreak Ridge”). She wrote a book, she directed, she taught.
“I’ve done a lot of things and been a lot of things,” she said. “But I think it was time to move back east.” She returned to the theater, to New York, where she scored a success recently in a revival of “I Never Sang for My Father.”
“Working in theater is a nurturing, powerful experience,” she said. “I love being here, being part of the process. Most actors revel in the rehearsal process, it’s when you’re really connecting, really alive.”
She stays in the game and on the stage. There’s no saying goodbye for the Goodbye Girl.