Omar Metwally as
Paul, Marisa Tomei as George, Lena Hall as Pip, Austin Smith as David and David
McElwee as Freddie photos by Kyle Froman
By Marc Miller
verdict on How to Transcend a Happy Marriage, was offered up by a
much-loved theater critic: “Well, it’s my favorite Sarah Ruhl play so far. And
that’s a pretty low bar.” There you have it.
still-youngish playwright whose plays, such as The Clean House and In
the Next Room, often traffic in alternate realities, mythology, and Freud,
goes more conventional than usual with How to Transcend a Happy Marriage,
perhaps with an eye toward its venue, Lincoln Center—is there a more
traditional subscription base? Certainly the venerable audience has nothing to
fear from its opening scene, which could be the opening scene for something by
Donald Margulies or even Neil Simon.
well-appointed suburban living room (David Zinn’s set feels a little
underdressed), longtime-friend couples George and Paul (Marisa Tomei and Omar
Metwally) and Jane and Michael (Robin Weigert and Brian Hutchison) are sipping
wine and giggling over George’s recounting of the exploits of the charismatic temp
she works with, Pip (Lena Hall). Pip, she tells them, is, first of all,
gorgeous, and eccentric: She only eats meat that she personally hunts and slaughters,
and she lives with Freddie (David McElwee) and David (Austin Smith), evidently
in a happy ménage
à trois. For the fortyish
quartet contemplating this younger adventurous triangle, it’s something to
spike the imagination; and Ruhl, working in an unusually straightforward mode,
writes entertaining small talk that points up generational differences. How does
the older generation feel about the increasing sexual fluidity of the next, and
is it something they want any part of?
to find out, for the quartet invites the trio over for New Year’s Eve (did the
youngsters really have no other plans?), and they arrive bearing hash brownies
and Gen Y attitudes. Here the conversation tries to be free-ranging and
diverse, but keeps circling back to sex, with George and Paul and Jane and
Michael so fascinated by Pip and Freddie and David—what do they do, and
what roles do they play, and how do they feel about it? Soon the clothes are
falling and the fingers are roaming, and the first act closes on a ménage à sept, interrupted by
an unexpected arrival, who’s horrified by what she sees. (Naian Gonzalez
Norvind is wonderful in the role; to reveal any more would be a spoiler.)
Marisa Tomei as
George and Lena Hall as Pip
a clever curtain, and it sets us up for more speculation on changing sexual
roles and generational divides. Alas, Act Two finds Ruhl returning to her
standard magical realism, and Zinn’s set goes all stylized and
not-really-representing-anything, and some plot elements—jail, transfiguration,
a dead dog, discussions of geometry, the revelation that we didn’t quite see
what we thought we saw—become cumbersome.
all perfectly well played under Rebecca Taichman’s capable direction, with
Tomei, especially, exercising crack comic timing and expressive inflections,
even as George falls into a not very credible midlife crisis. Weigert’s a super
best friend, bringing out Jane’s more grounded personality, and Metwally and
Hutchison do what they can with their somewhat less interesting spouses. Hall
pulls focus from the four, notably with a highly suggestive karaoke rendition
of “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain,” but that’s what Pip would do, and she
possesses the allure needed to make this odd character convincing. McElwee’s
Freddie feels a little wimpy, while Smith’s David ably handles some of Ruhl’s
dialogue wanders all over the place, with actors, as so often happens in new
plays these days, tearing down the fourth wall and narrating to the audience
when the playwright can’t or doesn’t want to dramatize it. Whatever Ruhl is
trying to say about fluid sexuality, second chances, or generational conflict,
the second act is too disorganized to tie up into a neat package. There are
touching marital issues, spiced up with some funny lines and provocative stage
pictures, explored in How to Transcend a Happy Marriage—and what about
that title, anyway, what gets transcended here?—but Ruhl, as she frequently
does, pours too much into the mix.
time: 1 hour 50 minutes, with one intermission.
the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 65th St., through May 7.
Tickets: Telecharge.com, or 212-239-6200.