‘In the Next Room’ Off Book

The play is set in the 1890s, after the dawn of the electrical era
Members of the cast of “In the Next Room,” including, from left to right, Licia James Zegar, Glenn Thomas Cruz (in back), Bonnie Grice, Caroline Smith (lying down), and Christian Scheider, rehearsed last Thursday. Jennifer Landes

   “The best thing about theater is that it is a collaborative, and the worst thing about theater is it’s a collaborative,” Joshua Perl, artistic director of Hamptons Independent Theater Festival and director of its next production, Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room (or the vibrator play),” said Saturday.
    The production opens next Thursday at the Bridge, a theater built on the stage at the Bridgehampton Community House in the form of a classic “black box,” with the audience seated on either side of the stage.
    As he talked, Mr. Perl watched four of his actors rehearse the opening of the play. They have been rehearsing since April 7 and had just gone off book. Before moving inside to start their rehearsal, they ran lines outside with the assistant director, Kathryn Lerner, cuing them as needed.
    Rehearsals immediately after going off book can be frustrating for actors. They can’t rely on the crutch of having the words in front of them, but they don’t yet have a truly organic understanding of the play’s language.
    Outside, during the line-through, the company was playful, enjoying the beautiful spring day as they ran their lines. Once inside, the joy was still there, but their focus was much more intense, as they felt their way through the material.
    Mr. Perl stopped the rehearsal.
    “Can you do that in one breath?” he asked Caroline Smith, who plays Mrs. Daldry. He approached her and whispered something, then the two talked quietly.
    “Breath. Go,” he told her. The actors ran the scene again.
    Ms. Smith clearly had incorporated his direction.
    “Better,” Mr. Perl said quietly, as the scene continued.
    The director is clearly committed to his company, and they to him.
    “We’re very fortunate to be directed by Josh,” Ms. Smith said before the rehearsal. She met him when doing a reading of “A Beheading in Spokane,” she said, then came out from New York to audition for “In the Next Room.”
    “I love this play. It is exciting, controversial, beautifully written,” she said.
    The play is set in the 1890s, after the dawn of the electrical era. Doctors experimented at the time with medical applications of the new source of power for their instruments. One of those applications was the use of vibrators for what were perceived as psychological problems in women.
    “I just call it the vibrator play,” Bonnie Grice, who plays Annie, said during the line-through. It is an appellation the rest of the company has adopted, as well.
    Ms. Grice, a WPPB FM radio host, was most recently seen playing one of the witches in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” directed by Tristan Vaughan at LTV Studio in Wainscott.
    “Shakespeare gets you ready for anything,” she said.
    Glen Thomas Cruz, who plays Doctor Givings, exited the scene, then went to another part of the room, where he picked up his script, either looking ahead to his next scene or perhaps looking back to confirm for himself the sequence of lines he had just delivered on stage.
    Mr. Perl is a strong believer in non-traditional casting, seeking the performer who is right for the part, regardless of race.
    His first thought, he said, when he began to think about casting, was that Mr. Cruz would be perfect to play the 19th-century European doctor. “I’ve worked with Glen. It’s a very different role for him. Glen is a warm, fun, kind of guy. The character is not like that,” Mr. Perl said. But Mr. Perl felt that Mr. Cruz’s warm personality would click into what is a much colder character.
    Then he paused for a moment during the casting process, he said, considering Mr. Cruz’s ethnicity — he looks Asian, not European. It was only for a moment. “What am I doing?” Mr. Perl asked himself. “That’s just B.S.”
    The play also has an African-American character, Elizabeth, played by Natasha Murray.
    “I auditioned for Josh a year ago,” Ms. Murray said. “He liked me enough to call me in for this.  It’s a great play. It talks about sexuality as it applies to women, and not just in the bedroom. It does it with humor.”
    “My favorite part?” Ms. Murray asked rhetorically. “Esther in Lynn Nottage’s ‘Intimate Apparel.’ Similar theme, but no vibrator,” she said, laughing.
    Mr. Perl pointed out the playwright’s description of the set. In many plays, this comes before a scene or the play begins and can read like a perfunctory set of orders dictating the exact structure of the stage.
    In a sense, set description is the playwrights way of introducing him or herself to the audience. The set is the first thing they see and it frames the characters on stage.
    In “In the Next Room,” Ms. Ruhl’s set directions seem almost like a conversation, an exploration into what is possible and what will work for the play and the company that is performing it.
    “She is a magical realist,” said Christian Scheider, who plays Leo Irving. “She has written a play set in 1890, but her metaphor transcends the limitations of that time.”
    Mr. Scheider is a graduate of Bard College and studied theater at the Stella Adler School in New York.
    The late Ms. Adler was a devotee of the Constantin Stanislavski approach to acting, as taught to her by the Russian master himself, in the late 1930s. Ms. Adler was also one of the founding members of the collaborative Group Theater, which revolutionized the American theater scene in that era by introducing “heightened realism” to American audiences.
    She would have felt at home watching Mr. Perl and his company rehearse.
    Also in the play are Licia James Zagar as Mrs. Givings and Joe Brondo as Mr. Daldry. The play runs from next Thursday through May 26. Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m.