Kurt Beattie is a man of ideas. People who have worked with the Seattle director describe him as a walking intellectual jukebox. Ask him about something brainy—Greek philosophy, Hindu epics, Czech history—and he will deliver an informed, accessible, and often passionate disquisition on the spot. The new slogan for ACT Theatre, which he has led since 2003, is "ACT: a theatre of new ideas."
Beattie's ideas are on full parade in his program notes for Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play), a 2009 script about marriage, electricity, and medical uses for vibrators in Victorian-era New England. Beattie kicks off his little essay with a quote from Kierkegaard ("Perfect love means to love the one through whom one became unhappy") and briskly name-checks Freud, Goya, Mahler, Schubert, Schumann, and Walt Whitman before closing with a Chekhovian chestnut: "If you are afraid of loneliness, don't marry."
For such a cerebral director, Beattie is oddly attracted to plays about the messiness of bodies. Last year, he directed The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Martin McDonagh's bleak comedy about rural Irishmen who get shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, and dismembered. The year before that, he directed Rock 'n' Roll—one of Tom Stoppard's less intellectual plays—which fumbles around in pagan sensuality (especially Sappho), physical decay (especially cancer), mental decay (especially Syd Barrett), sex among the young, and passion among the old. This year it's Ruhl's Vibrator Play, which suffers from the same affliction that plagues so many Beattie-body productions—it's as bloodless as a stalk of celery.
Dr. Givings is the progressive, aloof doctor who treats hysteria in women, and occasionally men, with the help of his beloved new instrument: the "Chattanooga vibrator." (The Chattanooga vibrator was a real thing. According to old catalogs, it cost $200 in 1904—$5,000 in 2010 money.) But in his zeal to cure his patients' hysteria, Dr. Givings overlooks a woman who desperately needs his attentions: Mrs. Givings. After overhearing one of his patient's orgasms, she demands a session with her husband's vibrator. He declines. "I am your wife," she insists.
"And, happily, you are my blooming young wife without a hint of neurosis—"
"Experiment on me!"
"—and in no need of my inventions or experiments."
"Experiment on me!"
"I can assure you that you would not like it. It would be unseemly for a man of science to do experiments on his wife."
She tries to seduce her husband in a variety of ways, but he is unresponsive—so she takes long walks and flirts with one patient (Leo, a young artist, who gets anal treatment) and another patient's husband (Mr. Daldry, played by the ever-reliable Michael Patton, as an officious plutocrat in fur ruffs and a monocle). At one point, Mrs. Givings bemoans her neglected piano to Mrs. Daldry: "It's hardly been used, you must play it. The poor thing is languishing without a human touch. It is like a piece of dead wood without being played." (Ruhl will never be known as America's subtlest playwright.)
The characters buzz with sexual longing and frustration—they flirt and kiss, grope and slap—but Beattie has found no conduit between the script and the stage, no way to build a charge between his actors. They seem to have been airlifted in from a light, euphemistic farce where lines about bodily "juices" are played for adolescent titters and no deeper, more rewarding laughter.
Some of this is Ruhl's fault. At one point in the script, Mrs. Givings is rushing across the stage and yells, "I'm coming!" while Leo has an "anal paroxysm." Ruhl's next stage direction apologizes for the lame pun: "Sorry, that was cheap. That will never happen again." (Who, exactly, is Ruhl apologizing to in this preciously self-regarding stage direction? The audience—the people who should be apologized to for such a goofy Chevy-Chase-in-the-1980s joke—will never read it.) But Beattie has a history of reducing potentially explosive material into a squib. The Vibrator Play, despite some good performances and a simple but lovely set design by Matthew Smucker (half the floor is parquet, half is oversize wallpaper print) fails to arouse much of anything.
Beattie can be a very strong director. His best productions at ACT—Bach at Leipzig and Vincent in Brixton (both in 2005)—have been dramas about artistic geniuses trying to negotiate the friction between the world-in-their-heads and the world-as-it-is. Beattie has proven he can light up a stage with that conflict. But the sticky stuff—the bleeding and fighting and fucking? Not so much.