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Theater Review: The multiple pleasures of "In the Next Room"

Happy endings

From left, Paige Maney, Sarah Smith and Jordan Moeller know what's going on. Photo courtesy of the University of Puget Sound

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We theater practitioners are often mystified by our audience members. Why are they so reluctant to witness on stage what they're fans of at home? As Homeland and Masters of Sex demonstrate, cable TV can be sexy, even graphic, without feeling gratuitous. Until recently, candid carnality was out of bounds for live theater. Yet generations of writers who grew up in the cable/Internet era disdain such limitations, and I think their work will go a long way toward maintaining the relevance and vitality of live performance.

One such playwright is Sarah Ruhl, born in 1974. Her 2009 Broadway debut, In the Next Room, is subtitled The Vibrator Play. Yes, the subtitular appliance gets activated on stage, with predictably effusive results. If Meg Ryan's O face in When Harry Met Sally ... offended your delicate sensibilities, then this isn't the play for you. But if thoughtful writing, big laughs, poignant acting, and insights worthy of smarty-underpants conversation deep into the night are your thing, In the Next Room will hit you like a LELO rabbit. It even has multiple climaxes.

First, a bit of racy medical history: in the Victorian era, diagnosing a woman as "hysterical" meant she was suffering from uterine "congestion," a malady ascribed to any wife whose emotional state was in any way inconvenient for her husband. Treatment of "hysteria" required a round of "pelvic massage" in a doctor's office. No joke here, one of the first practical applications of electricity was a vibrating wand to hasten patients' "paroxysms" and relieve physicians' hand cramps. The procedure was viewed as asexual, largely because climactic pleasure wasn't a response ascribed to women. Oh, the humanity.

Director Sara Freeman, a University of Puget Sound graduate, delivers a show both intimate in detail and operatic in its passionate humanity. It's one of the year's best. Dr. Givings (Jordan Moeller) is a compassionate and science-curious doctor, but even he can't see the tension building within his wife, Mrs. Givings (Cassie Fastabend), nor can he predict the desires his assistant (Paige Maney) will release from an unfulfilled patient (Sarah Smith). Our seats surround Kurt Walls's impeccable, alley-style set as if we were scientists regarding an operating theater. That seems apt for a play that mingles issues of race, religion and sexuality in a seemingly effortless ménage a trois. Oh, it's a think piece, all right; but the leads in this production are so brave and, more importantly, so believable that our blushes and giggles give way quickly to empathetic compassion. When the multiple layers of Mishka Navarre's buttoned-up costumes fall away, we find yearning grown-ups within who act very like ourselves. A repressed world illuminates our own. There's no nudity In the Next Room, but it does have plenty of nakedness - and that makes all the difference.

IN THE NEXT ROOM (OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY), 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through Nov. 9, Norton Clapp Theatre, Jones Hall, University of Puget Sound, 1500 N. Warner, Tacoma, $7-$11, 253.879.6013

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