Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Coming attractions

It's Sister Sarah to the sexual rescue, ladies!
By now I think Sarah Ruhl's reputation as our greatest living figurehead playwright is assured, and if it's not, then In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play (now at SpeakEasy Stage) pretty much seals the deal. As a friend who saw it in its failed Broadway run assured me, it is, indeed, better than Dead Man's Cell Phone or Eurydice. It's just not all that good. It's sometimes funny, but also both predictable and meandering; despite a national reputation, a MacArthur "genius" grant, and a slew of nominations for the Tony and the Pulitzer, Ruhl has yet to produce a play like American Buffalo or Curse of the Starving Class, or really any of the plays that made the names of America's great male playwrights.

But In the Next Room is still good enough to keep her nailed to the prow of a cultural barge that somehow includes the Ivy League, the Seven Sisters, Oprah, and the Times's Charles Isherwood (who I sometimes think should have stuck to writing about porn stars). And why? Because, as usual, Ruhl earnestly connects, not with any sort of personal artistic vision, but rather with the touchstones of the liberal arts college experience (her play is even derived from a book by a Smith professor). The uptight white women who can't function sexually, and the warm, black woman who can; the distant, inadequate straight guy, and the gay, flamboyant artiste; the clichés are all there, one after the other, straight from the campus coffeehouse.

I remember when I first saw Eurydice, I innocently fumed that it played like "meandering jottings" from some college girl's journal. Little did I know that was literally true (Ruhl wrote it while at Brown) - and what's more, that was the whole point. Another of Ruhl's "college plays" (Passion Play) has likewise seen regional productions all over the country, such is the nostalgic hunger for campus culture (especially as written by a woman) on our stages. Indeed, Ruhl's career is just one facet of a larger cultural movement I've written critically about before: the steady encroachment of the academy on the arts. Professors are no longer content to analyze our theatre; instead, they presume to direct it, via repertory houses and a farm system of new play development. To them, and their former students, Ruhl seems like a singular talent; but to a skeptic, she has rather obviously been manufactured by what I call the academic-theatrical complex.

Of course Sarah Ruhl has some talent - otherwise the ruse wouldn't work;  she just doesn't have enough talent to deserve a major reputation. There are flickers of genuine feeling in almost all her scripts, including In the Next Room. And I'll admit that this time, the playwright's usual dependence on twee "poetry" (of the kind that almost made Alison Croggon "fwow up") and her penchant for metaphysical abandon are both tamped way down. Ruhl sticks roughly to "naturalism," such as it is, as she recounts her re-imagining of the introduction of the vibrator to the Victorian domestic scene (a typical advertisement, at left). Nobody pops in from another dimension, or comes back from the dead, and none of the furniture talks. But in a way, the lack of metaphysical messiness only points up that the script is nevertheless still a mess. Shorn of her flights of "poetry," Ruhl's characters are all the more obviously trite (Victorianism, vibrators, and college girls - as Freud would say, it's almost over-determined). And her structure is lousy as ever; she simply lacks the discipline to make her scenes cohere and build.

Still, I'll admit that in some ways In the Next Room is re-assuring; if Ruhl suddenly produced a great script, we'd actually be in serious trouble (the academy - and the terrorists - would have won!). But by now I don't think she ever will. You can't make the old excuses of youth and immaturity for her (Ruhl is 36 these days, not 25), nor can you pretend that financial need has engendered haste in her writing (the MacArthur made Ruhl financially independent). No, she's got all the money and time that she needs. This is as good as she's going to get.

For many people, of course, it's good enough; they're happy to ignore the truly great female playwrights of our day (Caryl Churchill, Sarah Kane), who are deeply original and difficult, to embrace the feel-good campus theatrics of Ruhl. That may be a bourgeois (or rather a "bobo") preference, but c'est la National Public Radio, ya know?

And SpeakEasy Stage, as usual, serves up a tastily sophisticated version of this superficial fare. Director Scott Edmiston provides a smooth surface to the production, and finds something close to the right tone of "sad" whimsy (which is no small trick). As he always does, he makes the play cute.  The director doesn't ameliorate the script's structural and thematic problems (he never does that), but at least he has engaged two of our best actresses - Marianna Bassham and Anne Gottlieb - as the Victorian ladies who discover the wonders of the clitoris, and go at the "little man in the boat" with the comic alacrity of Lucy and Ethel (above) in sweetly dirty scenes that are often a riot (the joke is all the funnier when they do each other, at left).  In supporting roles, Edmiston has also called back from New York the wonderful Lindsey McWhorter as Gottlieb's wet nurse (and her soulfulness takes some edge off the stereotypical vibrations of the role), and cast quietly intriguing newcomer Frances Idlebrook as the physican's assistant whose magic fingers get better results than any electrical instrument could.

The men fare less well - but then we get the idea they're supposed to; Ruhl almost never conjures convincing male characters (amusingly enough, her men are often cut from the same cardboard as Mamet's women).  The guys are there to serve as targets, and maybe take their clothes off. Still, the actors do what they can, and Derry Woodhouse strikes a nervous spark or two as Gottlieb's distant husband, and sportingly grits his teeth through the requisite stretch of SpeakEasy male nudity.  (Does this theatre ever feature naked ladies?  If they're not going to in a play about vibrators, I guess they never will!).

Still, I will admit - although I feel I'm a bit of a traitor to my own cause for doing so - that this isn't the best production of In the Next Room that I can imagine. Ruhl rambles so in the second half of her script that for her finale, she simply pulls a theme out of her play like a rabbit out of a hat; the drama turns out to be, in its final minutes, about men facing up to their fear of sexual inadequacy, and connecting with their women, even if electric puppetry can overpower the penis. Fair enough; and the production could, I think, have prepared us for this dénouement - but only if Gottlieb were even better than she already is. It's really up to her to deepen her characters' awareness of her situation, and thus the atmosphere of the play (she'd have to do it pretty much without Sarah Ruhl's help, though). Hard as this may be, that's the only way to shift the play's focus toward its final resting point, and maybe give it some real resonance as well. Till that happens, In the Next Room may give off fun vibrations, but will lack real electricity.

1 comment:

  1. I saw the Broadway production. I thought it had some structural problems and I also felt that the race story it tries to tell as a b narrative fell flat.

    I would say it was kind of "meh."