Like most plays, In the Next Room or the vibrator play is largely about love. It was written by the brilliant, panoramic playwright Sarah Ruhl, so it is about a number of other engaging and provocative things, too, but mostly, I think, it is about love.
And I will be honest with you: I find it a somewhat shocking and delightfully dangerous play.
But that feeling has nothing to do with the fact that there are vibrators, orgasms, nudity, strong language, shocking or controversial ideas, or any of the typical things one might associate with the words “shocking” or “dangerous”. No, on the contrary, while I am quite interested and engaged by all those things, I don’t find them shocking or dangerous.
No, I find this play shocking and dangerous (as well as discomforting, sad, beautiful and many other things…), because it is bold enough to ask a simple and powerful question. This question—if fully encountered—invites you to see the world just a little bit differently, and may, like many of the characters in the play, leave you feeling somewhat… exposed.
The question is this: How clearly do you really see the ones you love?
Or put another way: How well do you know those you know the best?
Or put another way: How intimate are your intimate relationships really?
We all know how easy it is to be astounded when we learn things about people to whom we are only semi-close. We’ve all heard interviews with neighbors who lived next door to X for Y years and can’t believe that he/she would really do a thing like that… And we’re genuinely shocked when our co-worker turns out be a this or a that or the other thing we totally didn’t expect. We’re even amazed when family members have affairs, shave their heads, sell off their possessions, or take any kind extreme action of which we did not quite think them capable.
We know people can surprise us quite a bit…
But what about our husbands, wives, partners and lovers? The ones with which we are most intimate, shouldn’t we be able to truly see them completely? We can finish their sentences; we know what they are going to order before they do; the littlest look or gesture can send us into ecstasy or agony; don’t we believe we can actually see and know who they really are???
This play asks these questions in wonderful and sneaky ways. It takes place more than a century ago so you are allowed to watch events unfold with a certain distance. You don’t have to look at yourself too closely right away… but just when you are ready to go ahead and judge these people for their sad and misguided practices and perspectives, you may find that, lo and behold, (as the great playwrights inevitably do), the mirror she is holding up is facing squarely at you.
You just may find that their shortsightedness, myopia, and peculiar kinds of blindness are not that different than some kinds you may have, on occasion, been guilty of your very own self. You may just find that the objectionable actions, attitudes, and inabilities you are witnessing unfold before your very eyes don’t seem half so removed as you might first have imagined.
Or maybe not… Maybe this is just me.
Maybe I am being that awkward guy who admits to some behavior and then turns to the group and says “You all do that, too, right?” only to be met with mumbles and averted eyes. Maybe you all see your partners and loved ones with absolute clarity. Maybe you are as intimate with their needs as with your own. Maybe your very closeness doesn’t make it hard to see what is right under your nose, or staring you in the face. Maybe you actually see, know and truly understand your partner as well as you would really like to… as well as they would like you to.
If so, congratulations, that is wonderful, well done.
And while I think you maybe still will enjoy this play for its delightful sense of humor, keen insight, and sharp understanding of human frailty, you will, while you watch, be able to bask in an easy glow of superiority. You may never have to imagine yourself up there, on the table, under exacting scrutiny, or as the ill-sighted, cockeyed, purblind examiner yourself.
The rest of us, I’m afraid, may not have quite so easy a time of it.
~Aaron Posner, Director of In the Next Room or the vibrator play