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    Hysterical: A Short History of the Vibrator

    Quivering heights

    "Hysterical" starts out by getting you in the mood for a good, ribald comedy about the invention of the vibrator, but it lets you down just when you sense a climactic moment coming on.


    "Hysterical: A Short History of the Vibrator" is best suited for those whose anatomical parts might most benefit from a vibrator. The play — which one might hope is based on the true history of a device it says predates most other household appliances — has severe shortcomings, but it also offers a fair amount of saucy fun, especially for the women in the audience.

    Written by: Hilary Hadley Wright.
    Directed by: Jennifer Goodlander.
    Cast: Andrea Caron, Allyson Wood, Emma Palumbo, Lani Hansen.
    Under St. Marks Theater
    94 St. Marks Pl. near 1st Ave.
    Aug. 8-24, 2003

    The play starts with a view into the oh-so-respectable early 20th century physician's practice of Foster (Allyson Wood), a specialist in that women's disorder called "hysteria." Today we might call this disorder merely a healthy libido, but in the play's era it was a dangerous ailment that required treatment. That treatment required a doctor such as Foster to help ease the woman's tension by clinical manipulation of the appropriate appendages.

    The trouble is, providing this therapy to women could be very arduous — then as now, many of them took ten or twenty minutes to achieve "relief." For a bright, enterprising man of science in the Era of Progress, that was nothing less than a challenge. Could not technology provide much more efficient service?

    The funniest parts of the play involve the doctors' misguided ideas for properly stimulating a woman. (I would say well-intentioned ideas, but the only intention is to advance the cause of science, not to actually get women excited. Dr. Foster doesn't even believe women are capable of sexual excitement, although hs colleague Dr. Charles is a bit more in tune with female sexuality.) Women get excited by the jostling on a train, right? So try that. Perhaps a well-aimed "ascending douche"? Still, not good enough. Then how about a mechanical device that would simulate the finger of a trained medical professional? Why, it just might work!

    As it goes on, the play becomes increasingly programmatic and ponderous, with a spate of in-crowd jokes straight out of Feminism 101. Much of the humor is based on the men's stiltedly Victorian inability to understand women's desires, with another character, Frances (Andrea Caron), setting them straight in a contrasting voice that's really out of the present, as if the doctors are to blame for not living in more enlightened times. The dogmatism is reinforced by the use of women in the men's roles, which is not wrong in itself but when the characters are such straw men it becomes awkward. The play's lowest points come when Dr. Charles (Emma Palumbo) delivers pompous expositions about Sigmund Freud and penis envy as if the mere words are punch lines in themselves. It's simple mockery, not satire. There are smart, funny ways and lazy, unfunny ways to handle these concepts, and this is the latter.

    Not so for the play's better half. Lani Hansen has much of the best material as Nellie, the dubious but innocently cooperative subject of the men's experiments. Without being overly graphic, the play manages to suggest all kinds of indignities that might be inflicted on the female anatomy. These scenes are funny, but probably extra funny to those audience members who may have such anatomy on their person in the theater and can almost feel themselves in the unfortunate position of the women involved. It's a case where euphemism and innuendo are much funnier than overt rhetoric — and where the best humor gets, quite literally, under your skin.

    AUGUST 17, 2003

    Reader comments on Hysterical: A Short History of the Vibrator:

  • Fantastic Show! Bravo!   from Cary Davis, Aug 19, 2003
  • Straight up!   from Kelly, Nov 25, 2004
  • HELP!!!   from Camilo, Oct 12, 2007
  • Re: HELP!!!   from , Nov 14, 2007

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