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Theatre in Review: How to Transcend a Happy Marriage (Lincoln Center Theater/Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater)

Marisa Tomei. Photo: Kyle Froman

Extramarital affairs can be very messy things -- you don't need me for nuggets of wisdom -- but must plays about them be so messy, too? Consider the case of How to Transcend a Happy Marriage, in which two couples suddenly embark on an erotic adventure that has all sorts of unintended consequences. Surprisingly for an author -- Sarah Ruhl -- whose productions often feature strong concepts, the play, after initially charting a funny, if familiar, dramatic course, collapses in a heap of half-expressed ideas and unraveled plot strands. Infidelity proves to be destabilizing in more ways than one.

To be precise, the issue at hand is polyamory, an arrangement that appears to offer the twin delights of intimacy and variety. The topic comes up at a get-together featuring best friends Jane and George (short for Georgia) and their husbands, Michael and Paul. Jane starts talking about Pip, a new temp at her office, who, in addition to hunting and killing animals for meat -- she "ethically slaughters" them, using up every last little bit, so one goat can last the whole winter -- is also in a polyamorous relationship -- a "throuple," if you will -- with two men. It all seems so off-the-charts eccentric that the intrigued foursome resolves to invite Pip and her men to help them ring in the New Year -- and pump them for the details of their daily lives.

For much of the first act, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage is very funny, in a conventional, old-school sex comedy kind of way. George, fascinated by Pip's hunting instinct, wonders, "Do you think I shouldn't eat meat if I can't bring myself to slaughter it?" The always-reasonable Paul replies, "You don't walk around naked just because you can't knit." George, put off by the whole idea, notes, "Really, polyamory takes all of the fun out of adultery." Paul, in agreement, says, "With two women -- all the talking about it -- the emotional processing." "That's true," adds George. "It would be exhausting. All the talking." "But two men," says Jane. "All of the laundry...."

As the fateful party unfolds, Pip and company prove to be thoroughly disarming, their relaxed way of life neatly contrasted with the disappointments and compromises experienced by the others. Pip describes her meat-slaughtering ways. David (pronounced à la française) is a total cosmopolitan (with an unplaceable accent) who studies differential geometry, and Freddie is a winsome idler who doesn't need money because he never throws anything out. (He finds everything he needs in other people's trash.) All three are clearly devoted, and the men are obviously as interested in each other, sexually, as they are in Pip. The slightly arcane rules of their "triad" (David's word) are explained, and, when a karaoke machine is brought out, Pip wows them all with her uniquely seductive take on "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain When She Comes." The song has its intended effect; by midnight, all seven characters are seen erotically entwined -- but the orgy comes to a crashing halt for reasons I'd best not reveal.

Up to this point, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage is possibly the most conventional play Ruhl has ever given us, but, especially as directed by Rebecca Taichman, it's all so smoothly done that we're willing to go along for the ride, in order to enjoy the comic aftermath of the group's transgression. But I can think of no other play in the author's catalog that so completely implodes after intermission -- most of its troubles stemming from arbitrarily held-back pieces of information. We are told something about that New Year's party that significantly changes our understanding of it, and of George's character; it's a startling revelation that goes nowhere. We also learn something about Pip that fails to jibe with the woman we have seen all night, and a supernatural element is introduced for just long enough to confound us before being dropped. As the action continues to flag, it seems clear that Ruhl has little or no idea where to take her beleaguered married couples; instead she falls back on long, explanatory monologues to provide a coherent wrap-up. It's at times like these that I am reminded that direct address is, all too often, the last resort of a cornered playwright.

The real issue here is the search for a kind of ecstatic mode of living that, perhaps, cannot be contained by conventional Western mores. Really, sex is only the tip of the iceberg; George, Jane, and their men are so caught up in their careers and children that they have lost the savor of living. Or, as Jane says, "It's no fair, no fair; you have to become an animal in order to have children and then you have a child and you have to disguise your animal nature forever after." Once she has guided them to this revelation, however, the playwright seemingly runs out things to say.

It's strange to see Ruhl, whose plays are usually founded on solid structural foundations, go so awry here, but at least How to Transcend a Happy Marriage benefits from Lincoln Center Theater's usual production polish. The cast, led by a delightful Marisa Tomei as the increasingly perplexed George and Robin Weigert as the skeptical, acid-tongued Jane, is faultless; also, Lena Hall puts her formidable musical theatre skills to use as Pip. There are also fine contributions from Omar Metwally and Brian Hutchison as the husbands, and from Austin Smith and David McElwee as David and Freddie. David Zinn's chic living room set is first seen with a trussed pig hanging over the stage, a preview of Pip's unusual gastronomical arrangements; Peter Kaczorowski's lighting is both tasteful and efficient. Susan Hilferty's costumes are filled with unusually sharp-eyed observations about the characters. Matt Hubbs' sound design showcases Todd Almond's delicate incidental music, as well as some animal-related effects, and the discreet thump of a heartbeat during that New Year's party.

How to Transcend a Happy Marriage does provide a fair amount of civilized amusement, but it's rising incoherence stems, I think, from a certain confusion about how seriously we should take the married characters' problems, especially after their party spins out of control. Oddly enough, it reminded me at times of Yours Unfaithfully, the 1933 sex comedy that premiered a few months ago at Mint Theater Company, another play in which marrieds construct a theory of sexual freedom, only to get tangled up in the rules they have set for themselves. I guess when it comes to theatrical accounts of straying, the more things change, the more they stay the same. -- David Barbour

(30 March 2017)

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