Sarah Ruhl should write more porn. Her works of brainy, feathered whimsy generally hover a few safe inches over dolorous themes—death, depression, unbridgeable distances between the sexes and between people in general. But her latest, the giggly, teasing, shamelessly entertaining In the Next Room or the vibrator play, displays something new: a pornographer’s instinct for instant gratification. Positioned somewhere between a dirty joke and an educated guess, the play draws on historical fact—Victorian doctors really did administer machine-assisted genital massage to “hysterical” women—to tell the tale of a staid physician (Michael Cerveris), his ebullient wife (Laura Benanti), and the miraculous device that comes between them. The play begins as an extravagantly elongated gag, morphs into an upended A Doll’s House, and ultimately verges on romantic comedy, with plenty of digressions (some toe-curlingly delightful, some pile-drivingly tedious) along the way. While much of this is wonderful—Ruhl has Caryl Churchill’s ease with slanted language, if not half her relish for slanted realities—it’s never terribly surprising. As in even the best smut, there is no suspense, only anticipation, followed by a happy ending.
Benanti’s Mrs. Givings, a woman loved gingerly by her dry-palmed doctor-husband, is all anticipation, watching, with increasing frustration, as he “treats” a pathologically unfulfilled patient (the superb Maria Dizzia, flecking a grand comic performance with granules of Hedda Gabler), but resists applying his magic wand to his “healthy” life-mate. The latest in Ruhl’s series of unfinished women, Mrs. Givings is aflutter with unspent energies and absurdly out of step with her corseted milieu. Words are her steam valve, and they come piping out of her in funny little musical hoots, reveries, ecstatic and songlike declamations. (And one actual song.) Benanti negotiates sharp shifts in mood and priority with grace, converting every hairpin turn into a comedic arabesque. She makes considered collisions of period and contemporary sensibilities, and they almost always pay off. Mrs. Givings is something of a child, and one occasionally wonders how much influence steam-punk nostalgia is exerting on Ruhl’s view of gender relations. But really, everyone in this play—maybe in all Ruhl plays—is a child, even Cerveris’s hyperrational Dr. Givings, who diagnoses his wife’s milk as “inadequate” for their new baby, and comforts her with these warm words: “The body is blameless. Milk is without intention.”
In fact, the play overflows with images of milk and electricity, zapped elephants and unfinished paintings and “the incomplete lines of God.” That theme of messy overabundance spills into the architecture of the play itself. (Ruined’s Quincy Tyler Bernstine, as Mrs. Givings’s black wet-nurse, Elizabeth, does a sensational job making an unnecessary role feel less so.) What does Ruhl make of all this? In the end, it’s hard to tell. She brings the night’s proceedings in for a soft landing, and we leave with the sense that In the Next Room may be diddling itself. But who cares? A little onanism never hurt anyone. Ruhl’s a great intellect, a true entertainer, an authoritative American voice that Broadway desperately needs. Let her milk it a little. — S. B.
Ragtime has all the stuff Broadway audiences should eat up: A plot that hinges on murder, vengeance, and injustice; a story whose moral seriousness glows like polished veneer; a number of fantastic voices onstage; the requisite number of “My dreams have died” songs. It’s an ambitious sprawl of a story, adapted from E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 historical pastiche about the early, heady days of the twentieth century. And in this revival—the show first appeared in 1998—director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge and her 40-strong ensemble do their damnedest to keep things moving, with the zeal and energy of a well-tuned engine.
So why does the whole shebang come off like the product of a too-efficient assembly line? Neither Terrence McNally’s mishmash of a book nor the sometimes syrupy songs (by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty) do the show any favors. And then there are the inherent problems of Doctorow’s novel, a puffed-out chest of a book that uses its characters as flattened symbols of racism, intolerance, hypocrisy, and disillusionment. It groans under its own lesson plan, and the musical follows suit.
In the show, as in the book, historical figures—among them Evelyn Nesbit, Emma Goldman, and Booker T. Washington—rub shoulders with fictional mortals, often only tangentially. Their job is to anchor the story in its particular time and place. The real drama swirls around the members of a well-to-do New Rochelle family who, random white people that they are, don’t even get names: There’s Mother (Christiane Noll), Father (Ron Bohmer), and the Little Boy (Christopher Cox, who adroitly avoids being too cute). Mother also has a Younger Brother, played by Bobby Steggert, who also just happens to be an explosives expert. The lives of the Family become entwined with those of a struggling black couple who are fortunate enough to have names: Pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. and his wife-to-be Sarah just want to build a life with their young son, although fate and injustice intervene. Meanwhile, Tateh (Robert Petkoff), a struggling Jewish immigrant, and his young daughter (Sarah Rosenthal) occasionally drift through to shiver visibly in their threadbare coats.
No one in Ragtime is having many laughs, and it’s a small miracle that this production is as vibrant as it is: The spare truss-work of the set is offset by Santo Loquasto’s costumes—bowlers, sweeping duster coats, ruffly pastel day dresses. The performers at least try to make their characters three-dimensional, which in some cases means adding a dimension that wasn’t written in the first place: Quentin Earl Darrington’s Coalhouse, in particular, makes a believable transition from gifted, hopeful citizen to beleaguered, embittered outsider.
But the story itself just has too many cogs, wheels, and levers for mere mortals to operate properly. None of the characters is onstage long enough for us truly to connect with their stories. The best the actors can do is to keep shoveling coal into the show’s engine. By the time that, deep into the second act, Noll’s Mother takes the stage to pour out her prefeminist disillusionment—“We can never go back to before,” she sings, her nostrils flaring earnestly—the future can’t come soon enough. The story told in Ragtime starts in 1906 and ends sometime before 1914, yet by the time it ends, it seems a whole century has passed: It’s too late to go back to before, to the days when every song on Broadway didn’t have to be an empowerment ballad. —S.Z.