Credit: Liz Lauren

The occasional world war, economic meltdown, or ecological collapse notwithstanding, bourgeois society is a fabulous thing. It’s given millions upon millions of average people luxuries they couldn’t have contemplated under more primitive arrangements, including clean water, plentiful food, warm shelters, store-bought clothes, imported rugs, and a reasonable expectation that they won’t get stoned to death by a mob.

And what have they had to sacrifice for these benefits? Just the pleasure principle. As Freud pointed out eight decades ago, in Civilization and Its Discontents, the deal is that they—we—get to live free of certain miseries as long as we agree to suppress certain urges . . . such as, say, our desire to fuck at will.

Looks like a no-brainer, considering the advantages. And yet we find it remarkably difficult to keep up our end of the bargain. The pleasure principle won’t be tamed. Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play deals with the eternal struggle between personal impulse and social inhibition.

A nominee for the 2010 best-play Tony Award—and, in my opinion, Ruhl’s strongest work so far—In the Next Room is set in the 1880s, sometime soon after Joseph Mortimer Granville invented the electric vibrator. Granville’s idea was to relieve muscle aches. But Ruhl’s earnest Dr. Givings has developed a thriving practice in a “prosperous spa town outside of New York City” by using the vibrator to treat hysteria—a “madness of the womb” that’s said to express itself in all kinds of unpleasant physical and emotional symptoms. Sounding more like a medieval alchemist than a modern doctor, Givings explains that hysteria is triggered by excess liquids in the uterus; sessions with the vibrator—which looks like a hand-held orbital sander and gets placed, as discreetly as possible, on the patient’s vulva—”invite the juices downward” and out of the body. Just the thing for exquisitely repressed Victorian women of means, for whom an orgasm is the spasm that dare not speak its name.

Into Dr. Givings’s home consulting room comes one such woman, Sabrina Daldry, wearing widow’s weeds even though Mr. Daldry still lives. Her complaints include sensitivities to light and cold, weeping spells, and ghosts in her green parlor curtains. The doctor diagnoses hysteria and starts his treatments. Sabrina’s mood and fashion choices brighten up immediately.

As her visits continue, Sabrina gets to know Dr. Givings’s young wife, Catherine, who’s got troubles of her own. She’s just given birth, but her breast milk hasn’t come in properly and her baby girl, Lottie, is losing weight. Turning her over to an African-American wet nurse named Elizabeth solves Lottie’s problems but intensifies Catherine’s. She has to contend with a sense of maternal failure as well as guilt over the fact that Elizabeth has milk to give only because her own baby died of cholera within days of his birth.

Meanwhile, Catherine is increasingly aware that something interesting is going on in the next room, where her husband works. First she wants to know what’s causing all the whirring noises and breathy screams she hears through the door. Then she wants in on it.

In the Next Room is a departure for Ruhl in that it doesn’t indulge the ostentatious quirkiness that became her signature thanks to pieces like The Clean House and Passion Play. There are no sudden expeditions to Alaska here, no enormous fish crossing the stage. Instead, Ruhl maintains her uniquely pixilated voice more organically, by combining unpredictable but believable characters with a narrative full of odd but plausible threads and a gorgeous sense of the absurd. Prime example: Leo Irving, an artist whose painter’s block Dr. Givings excitedly attributes to male hysteria. The only psychosexually integrated person in the play, Leo excites Catherine’s passions even as the doctor is experimenting on him—using a special-edition vibrator fitted out with an anal probe and getting excellent results.

Farcical elements like that are not only integrated with the drama of In the Next Room, they’re inseparable from it. And from its poetry, as well. The play ultimately comes across as a kind of sequel to Eurydice, Ruhl’s 2003 retelling of the Greek myth in which Orpheus descends into Hades to bring his dead wife back to life. The difference here is that the rescue has to be mutual.

Sandy Shinner’s staging is just about perfect, down to the charmingly coy differences in how Kate Fry’s Catherine and Polly Noonan’s Sabrina come. (For Sabrina, it’s all in the spine; Catherine does a sweet thing with her foot.) Joel Gross is more than a romantic figure as Leo—he’s a principled profligate, expressing the often-ignored ideals that accompanied 19th-century bohemianism. Patricia Kane imparts a similar richness to Dr. Givings’s assistant, Annie. And as Givings himself, Mark Montgomery bears a hilarious resemblance to Eliot Spitzer—not only physically but in his nerdish seriousness.

Costume designer Jacqueline Firkins is as much a star of In the Next Room as anyone. The layers of Victoriana with which she covers Catherine and Sabrina say as much about desire and its denial as anything in Ruhl’s script.