In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play marked a significant departure for playwright Sarah Ruhl. Best known for whimsical, spiritedly non-realistic plays, Ruhl ironically flirts with naturalistic writing in a story set not long after naturalism’s heyday. Despite this apparent stylistic shift, the play is rooted in Ruhl’s interest in interrogating history and examining the relationships and identities of women. Critical response to the play is separated by overall response to Ruhl’s stylistic mélange.
Detractors of the play fault its inability to distinguish its serious and comic moments. The most frequently cited problem is the play’s desire to have the audience chuckle at the women’s sexual awakening while taking it seriously as a social and historical development. Those who find the play tonally imbalanced characterize Ruhl’s attempts at humor as driven more by intellectual aims rather than dramatic ones. Similarly, the play has been criticized for stating its theses too overtly through its characters’ actions and dialogue. Finally, some critics have accused Ruhl of attempting to tackle too many issues in one play, resulting in a plot-driven story that does not allow for significant character development.
Unsurprisingly, many of the same issues cited by detractors as liabilities are praised by those who respond favorably to the play. One significant factor in weighing critical responses is the different approach taken by various productions of the play. While some productions milk the comic elements to the point of stylization, more positively reviewed productions allow the humor to punctuate the more serious conflicts. For example, when Elizabeth suggests to Catherine and Sabrina that they might achieve the same “paroxysms” they get from Dr. Givings' machine with their own husbands, the women laugh incredulously. More broadly comic productions flirt with racial stereotyping (since Elizabeth is African-American and the other women are white) while seriocomic productions find the humor, and sadness, in the lack of understanding of female sexuality by both women and men.
Champions of In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play laud the multiplicity of focus points in Ruhl’s writing. Using historical fact, Ruhl relates the advent of electricity to the beginnings of female (if not feminist) awakening. Ruhl’s trademark postmodernism exists in these concepts and character development rather than in the structure of the narrative. The juxtaposition of old and new in the play’s construction and thematic development is also cited as challenging to realize in performance.