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How to Transcend a Happy Marriage

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 20, 2017

Marisa Tomei and Lena Hall
Photo by Kyle Froman

Sarah Ruhl is a playwright who usually needs an editor, and for the first act of How to Transcend a Happy Marriage, her new play at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, she seems to have had one. In it, four fortysomething marrieds meet three polyamorous twentysomething partners and must both confront the sexual impetuousness of youth they thought they left behind, and consider whether it's a place they want to return to.

In theory, they have the option. George and Paul (Marisa Tomei and Omar Metwally) and Jane and Michael (Robin Weigert and Brian Hutchison), are quite close—albeit in that "mature," long-time-friend way, rather than the share-everything-and-everyone intimacy the younger Pip (Lena Hall), Freddie (David McElwee), and David (Austin Smith) enjoy. So moving from interfacing friends to intertwining lovers is not ridiculous. It just requires the right opportunity for them to drop the attitudes that are holding them back.

That opportunity arises—after a fair bit of alcohol and a batch of hash brownies—at the New Year's Eve party they hold for the purpose of, ahem, probing the threesome about their libidinous pursuits. (Jane heard about the arrangement from Pip at work.) And when they're in the middle of their seven-way satiation, they get a surprise that both cements their wildest desires and torpedoes them with the possibility they could also do lasting damage. Intermission!

It's a compelling curtain, to be sure, bearing a tension and an urgency that's typically lacking in Ruhl's works. Though she seldom wants for creativity, knowing when to stop is not her forte; she's as likely to stuff (one might even say choke) her plays with more ideas than they can support with the structure or dramatic adhesive she provides. This is true even of her sturdier works (In the Next Room or the vibrant Stage Kiss), though in those, like this one, she's more willing to play her hand than just instigate a symbolism-packed round of 52-Card Pickup.

What Ruhl has here works specifically because she holds a tight rein on her ideas, with even her signature wacky stuff (most notably, Pip's slaughtering of a goat she could spend the winter eating) kept in check by the powerful, relatable frame of age longing for the freedom of youth. The adults are so straitlaced and the kids so uninhibited that you experience a real generational and attitudinal gap that Ruhl can then spin off into bold new vistas of experimentation.

Marisa Tomei, Omar Metwally, Robin Weigert,
and Brian Hutchison
Photo by Kyle Froman

Director Rebecca Taichman accentuates this throughout her production, which is slick and well paced enough to spackle over some of the pockmarks in Ruhl's unsteady dialogue. ("Oh My life is so small!", complains George at one point. "Can this include the world? I can’t—hold it.") David Zinn's handsome upscale-swank set is an ideal backdrop for deconstructing upper-middle-class values, but sufficiently versatile that no one is locked in to them. The costumes (Susan Hilferty) and lights (Peter Kaczorowski) are right in line with this, as is the reflective original music from Todd Almond that outlines the fragile emotions at play.

Taichman also guides her actors to play up their necessarily volatile characteristics without roundly dipping into caricature (though McElwee and Smith cut it mighty close). Particularly fine is Tomei; George is the largest and most important role, and she precisely captures her inner turmoil between what she thinks she wants and what she's supposed to have. Hutchison is excellent, too, at depicting the reluctant sensitivity inherent in a man who needs to be convinced to let his deepest feelings out. And Hall devours her flashy part as she presents a vivacious, unchecked id that embodies life at its fullest (and most hedonistic). Weigert, Metwally, and Naian González Norvind as Michael and Jane's daughter Jenna have more trouble finding their footing, as their characters are more sketchily developed, but everyone is unquestionably operating on the same wavelength.

Unfortunately, Ruhl does not match their group discipline in the second act. Almost as soon as it act begins, she dives into the magical realism and fantastic metaphysics that she's explored so often before, upending the commonsense recognizability that drives Act One and turning the show into something else entirely. This is really tired territory for her—she's been regurgitating it regularly since her New York debut with The Clean House in 2007, and it didn't feel new then—and her inability to make it fresh, to say nothing of coherent, interrupts the flow of the earlier social critique scenes that don't need any help making their points.

She also plays a cheap perspective trick that throws into chaotic disarray too much of what you know and what you think matters; there needs to be a darn good reason for showing you something and later claiming it didn't exist, and Ruhl does not provide one. This is representative of the larger editing issue: not every play can, or should, contain everything its writer can conceive. Against the odds, Ruhl regains some of her momentum in the final scene, and brings things to a thoughtful, even moving, finish that recasts and reargues her chief conflict in unexpected terms. But she never earns or justifies either her languorous digression or her preposterous cheap-thrill switch-up.

As a result, like The Oldest Boy, Ruhl's last play in this theater, this one runs less than two hours but still feels bloated—that's what happens when you say too much to really say anything. I suppose that deficit is marginally understandable, as Ruhl's characters are discovering that, in relationships, more can really be more. But considering How to Transcend a Happy Marriage as a play rather than a social treatise, more isn't more. It's just less.

How to Transcend a Happy Marriage
Through May 7
Lincoln Center Theater - Mitzi E. Newhouse, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge