Theater Review

Dallas theater company sizzles with electrifying play about desire

Dallas theater company sizzles with electrifying play about desire

Imprint Theatreworks presents In The Next Room (Or the Vibrator Play)
Katlin Moon-Jones, Jennifer Kuenzer, and Mindy Neundorff in In the Next Room (Or the Vibrator Play). Photo by Kris Ikejiri
Imprint Theatreworks presents In The Next Room (Or the Vibrator Play)
Jennifer Kuenzer as Mrs. Givings and Evan Michael Woods as Leo. Photo by Kris Ikejiri
Imprint Theatreworks presents In The Next Room (Or the Vibrator Play)
Jennifer Kuenzer Photo by Kris Ikejiri
Imprint Theatreworks presents In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play
David Meglino as Dr. Givings and Sky Williams as Elizabeth. Photo by Kris Ikejiri
Imprint Theatreworks presents In The Next Room (Or the Vibrator Play)
Mindy Nuendorff as Mrs. Daldry and Jennifer Kuenzer as Mrs. Givings. Photo by Kris Ikejiri
Imprint Theatreworks presents In The Next Room (Or the Vibrator Play)
Imprint Theatreworks presents In The Next Room (Or the Vibrator Play)
Imprint Theatreworks presents In The Next Room (Or the Vibrator Play)
Imprint Theatreworks presents In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play
Imprint Theatreworks presents In The Next Room (Or the Vibrator Play)

Just like you never know what goes on behind closed doors, some might never suspect what emotions flutter beneath a tightly laced corset.

Set in the equally restrained 1880s, at the dawn of Thomas Edison's electric light, Sarah Ruhl's clever In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) offers a release for frustrated women and clueless men with a cheeky interpretation of suspect medical lore.

Namely it's built on the idea that male doctors used to relieve their female patients of "hysteria" (which encapsulated everything from irritability to sexual desire to depression) by manually — and later with electric aid — inducing "paroxysms." In the upper-class New York home of Dr. and Mrs. Givings (check that word play), patients cycle in and out of the operating theater while the doctor's wife, much like the cobbler's children, goes without any sort of stimulation herself.

Imprint Theatreworks is focusing its second season on women's voices, and Ruhl's 2009 play is still shouting urgently a decade later. On a split set designed by Ellen Mizener, showing the audience both a sterile treatment room and a warmly decorated sitting area, we get to watch what Mrs. Givings (the highly expressive Jennifer Kuenzer) can only hear happening through the door.

Her scientific husband (played crisply but not coldly by David Meglino) is thankfully not a lech, but he also fails to see the human beings occupying his treatment chair. It's a common theme among men in the play, doubled down by Robert San Juan as the blustering husband who brings in his timid young wife for treatment.

She's no longer satisfying him, you see, but he's invigorated to meet the blooming Mrs. Givings and satisfy her craving for attention. Doe-eyed and fragile as a flower, Mrs. Daldry (Mindy Neuendorff) is surprised to discover that she now greatly looks forward her treatments — and the female nurse (Katlin Moon-Jones) who helps administer them.

Also booking an appointment is the bohemian English artist Leo (flamboyantly inhabited by Evan Michael Woods), who finds his next muse in the practical wet nurse (Sky Williams) grudgingly hired by Mrs. Givings. All are sumptuously costumed by Jessie Wallace, with the many instances of getting dressed and undressed onstage handled deftly and serving as moments of intimacy, frustration, and anticipation.

Though its title sounds farce-like, In the Next Room always keeps its characters grounded in truth and treats them with respect (professional intimacy direction by artistic director Ashley H. White is much appreciated). Director Marianne Galloway continually takes her audience to the brink but expertly pulls them back, ensuring two-and-a-half hours of delicious foreplay for the mind and heart.

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Imprint Theatreworks' production of In the Next Room (Or the Vibrator Play) runs through January 26 at the Bath House Cultural Center.