April 5, 2017

"How to Transcend a Happy Marriage" Gets Bogged Down in the Metaphysics of Love

Happy marriages don't get much love in plays; they don't provide enough dysfunction for drama and there's not enough cutting up in them for comedy. So gratefully ensconced in one myself and wanting to see something like it onstage, I was hoping that the title of Sarah Ruhl's latest play How To Transcend a Happy Marriage wasn't altogether ironic.

And indeed the two main couples in her dramedy, now running at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi Newhouse theater through May 7, start off content and end up somewhat that way too. It's what happens in the middle that's problematic for me.

The couples are a Latin teacher named George (short for Georgia) and her architect husband Paul and their best friends, Jane, a legal aid lawyer; and her husband Michael, a musician who writes jingles for a living. As the play opens they're all having drinks and gossiping about a young woman at Jane's office who is in a polyamorous relationship with two men. 

The friends are equally intrigued by the fact that the woman, her name is Pip, is so earthy that she will only eat meat she hunts and kills herself.  Indeed, one of her bloody carcasses is symbolically suspended over the stage when the audience enters the theater.

The couples' fascination leads to a dinner invitation for Pip and her mates. Which in turns leads to a Bacchanalia. Which results in a hunting expedition for George and Pip, an incarceration, a surreal transformation and some realizations about the animalistic instincts that influence our lives and the bonds-—comradely, familial, spousal—that temper those impulses.

The two-hour journey to these epiphanies is less a narrative than a series of vignettes, some more entertaining than others. I found Pip's pretentious companions to be annoying (a riff about Pythagoras seemed not only boring but with, all the allusions to triangles, too on the nose). Meanwhile Jane and Michael's shrill teenage daughter seemed less a character than a plot device.

But the dialog sparkles with Ruhl's trademark wit and lyricism. And director Rebecca Taichman ably juggles Ruhl's abiding interest in female sexuality with her more metaphysical fancies (at one point a character seems to transform into a bird).

The entire cast is excellent (click here to read their take on the show) with Lena Hall (who has played both Yitzhak and Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch) bringing her wild-child energy to Pip, even turning a familiar folk song into a raunchy come-on.

But Marisa Tomei and Robin Weigert are particularly appealing as George and Jane, two fortysomething women happy with their lives but still rueful about the roads not taken and worried that it may be growing too late to explore others. Ruhl does give them a happy ending. Or maybe she's being ironic after all.

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