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Vortex Theatre does justice to ‘Next Room’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Ever since “The Clean House” premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2004, Sarah Ruhl has been a playwright to watch. Whether exploring ancient myth, as in “Eurydice,” or the impact of technology on our lives, as in “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” Ruhl’s plays are imbued with a poetic richness rarely found in contemporary American playwriting.

Her interest in technology and its affect on modern consciousness is also present in her 2010 Tony nominated play, “In the Next Room (The Vibrator Play),” currently receiving an excellent production at Vortex Theatre.

The play is set in the 1880s, just after Edison revolutionized daily life with his invention of the electric light. But the subject of the play is not so much technology as it is the upper middle class’s alienation from their own bodies, the sad dearth of genuine intimacy in that same class, and the control men had over the women in their lives in the last decades of the 19th century.

Dr. Givings treats “hysteria” by stimulating his patients to orgasm – “paroxysm,” as it is clinically denoted – with an electric vibrator. Much of the humor in the play – and it is a very funny play – occurs from witnessing the prosperous and privileged characters’ astonishing ignorance of their own bodies and their own needs.

At the center of the play is Dr. Givings’ spirited but troubled wife, Catherine. The lack of intimacy between Catherine and her husband is exacerbated by her inability to provide adequate milk to her baby, thus necessitating the hiring of an African American wet nurse, and the cries of orgasmic ecstasy coming from her husband’s “operating theater” in the next room. Catherine’s humiliation reaches its height when the romantic artist Mr. Irving confesses that he cannot reciprocate Catherine’s supposed love for him, as he loves the wet nurse, Elizabeth.

Despite the outrageous conceit (based on documentary records), this is one of Ruhl’s more conventional plays, and perhaps that is why it has also been her most popular. The play ends somewhat improbably with the troubled couple finding the intimacy Catherine has been longing for so long.

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The Vortex production is sensitively directed by Joe Alberti and the acting is uniformly excellent. Arlette Morgan is outstanding as Catherine, oscillating rapidly between lachrymose melancholy and giddy nervousness and back again; Jeremy Joynt is excellent as her husband, the kindly but clueless Victorian doctor; Jenny Hoffman is a delight to watch as the sexually awakened patient Mrs. Daldry; Justino Brokaw brings just the right touch of 19th century romanticism to the artist Leo Irving; and Eboni Thompson shines as the wet nurse Elizabeth, not least in her powerful monologue near the end of the play.

But I would be remiss if I did not also mention Yolanda Luchetti Knight, who is excellent as the doctor’s reticent assistant Annie (her final lonely exit is deeply affecting), and Matt Heath, who is very funny as the well-meaning but pompous Mr. Daldry.

Playing through May 10. Call 505-247-8600 for reservations.

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