A period play with modern overtones combines a splash of science, pop psychology, sexual humor, and unlikely events to create a pastiche that somehow earned a Tony nomination as Best New Play in 2010.
The play, like the title, is a hybrid, which stands at the crossroads between the safe harbor of good taste and the abyss of vulgarity. Playwright Sarah Ruhl, apparently unable to make the decision, gives us both. The central character in a sense is The Machine, prominent, upstage on a raised platform, and wheeled out to provide vaginal stimulation to women as a cure for hysteria. This is in the 1880s, and the costumes by Claire Verheyen are exceptional, as is the set by Claire A. Jac Jones and Jodi Bobrovsky. They are rich, function beautifully, and inspire a sense of authenticity. The costumes are especially important, as the female garments come on and off as often as they do in burlesque -- but without the fun, or sexiness, of that genre.
The director, Leslie Swackhamer, seems as uncertain as the playwright. The medical entrepreneur, Dr. Givings, is played by David Matranga, who lit up Stages just last month with electric energy as the glib, fast-talking theater producer in Mistakes Were Made, but here acts with zero charisma as a total stuffed-shirt and bore, coming close to wallpaper. A directorial choice might have been to add charm and authority to the character, since he apparently easily persuades patients to allow electrified metal objects to be inserted into body orifices. Having written him off early on as a cipher, we unexpectedly are asked to care about him in a quasi-poetic epilogue.
His wife, Catharine, is portrayed by Tracie Thomason, beautiful and likable, with an engaging personality, but she is compelled by the script to have such strange mood swings that her husband at one point says, "You are acting the part of a madwoman in a play." The audience laughs, as indeed she is. Kristin Warren plays a patient cured by The Machine, which seems to have a Prozac-like after-effect. She is good, but has nowhere to go after the first change from hysteric invert to addiction to The Machine. Her husband is played by Steve Irish, whom I admired greatly for the authenticity of his performance, until the narrative propelled him into folly in Act II.
Garret Storms plays a painter, entering in Act II, and his treatment from The Machine is played for farce. He creates a vivid portrait of an artist impulsive to a fault, and carried away by enthusiasm, but ultimately joins the others in becoming a cartoon. Pamela Vogel plays a nurse, and yes, her behavior joins the list of oddities. Only Courtney D. Jones as a servant manages to survive, with dignity intact, a very unlikely conversation.
Ruhl provides us with a series of scenes -- to say vignettes would dignify them -- in which characters behave without motivation and out of character. Leaving an accessory behind to permit unannounced re-entry -- first a hat, then gloves, then a scarf -- is the stuff of farce, but here is merely irritating. Intimate conversations transpire between servants and masters, and between virtual strangers. A servant asked to pose for a painter is paid $10 an hour, when the going price in the 1880s might have been 25 cents. The overall impression is that Ruhl has no respect or her characters or for the audience. Stages has mounted a production impressive in re-creating a sense of period, but director Swackhammer has not solved the substantial problems inherent in the script.
A handsome production of a flawed play teeters between farce and drama, satisfying the demands of neither.