BWW Review: Societal Norms Meet Animal Natures in Sarah Ruhl's HOW TO TRANSCEND A HAPPY MARRIAGE
As patrons enter the Mitzi Newhouse for Sarah Ruhl's newest clever and quirky comedy, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage, they're greeted by set designer David Zinn's rendering of a smart and simply furnished living room, above which hangs the carcass of a slaughtered and skinned goat.
It's not there for long, as Lena Hall, playing a character who will be properly introduced later, opens the play by tenderly taking it down and carrying it away.
Set in contemporary times, Ruhl's latest explores territory that was a bit more commonly seen in plays and movies of the 60s and 70s; the topic of happily married couples trying to regain a bit of their reckless youths by sampling a bit of whichever sexual revolution was just taboo enough in their era to seem exotic.
In this case, it's a curious quartet made up of longtime friends George and Paul (Marissa Tomei and Omar Metwally) and Jane and Michael (Robin Weigert and Brian Hutchison). Conversing over drinks and hors d'oeuvres, their talk is crisp and entertaining. (Any playwright who can create characters who can wisecrack about THE BACCHAE without it seeming forced deserves bonus points.)
The primary topic is Pip, a temp at Jane's office who recently came to work looking a little peaked because she was busy slaughtering a goat over the weekend. The fact that Pip hunts animals for food and finds ways to use every part of their bodies would be the evening's takeaway, if not for the fact that Pip is also in a polyamorous relationship with the two men she lives with.
The gang is so fascinated by the BGB dynamic, wondering who has sex with who under what conditions, that they decide they must invite the trio over on the next evening they're all free, which happens to be New Year's Eve. Remarkably, Pip and her two mates are available to spend New Year's Eve with a co-worker and three strangers.
Yes, Pip is played by Lena Hall, and she's played as a young woman whose intelligence is strongly connected to her spirituality; a combination that her hosts certainly see as vividly sexual, especially when she unnerves her new friends with a non-traditional karaoke performance of "She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain When She Comes."
Formerly a vegetarian, Pip began hunting for her own food after learning she had an iron deficiency. (Why pills aren't an option is not explained.) She believes in treating her kills with love and gratitude, being sure to thank them before shooting the bow from her arrow.
Her partners are the serious-minded David (Austin Smith), a math theorist with a philosophical passion for triangles, and the cute and kittenish Freddie who, after attending Harvard, has devoted his life to trying "not to do anything" in an effort to leave no imprint of his existence.
After a sufficient number of drinks and bites of vegan hashish brownies, an orgy ends the first act, staged by director Rebecca Taichman with the kind of communal ritual that suggests something more ethereal than sexuality is being explored.
George, who occasionally shares her secret thoughts with the audience, is especially taken with Pip, and the second half sees the two of them bonding through a deer hunt that goes awry.
While Hall is appropriately the production's attention-grabber, Tomei's performance comfortably builds as George questions her life's directions, leading How to Transcend a Happy Marriage to a charming phantasmagorical finish that points out the conflict between our animal nature and the societal norms we create to control it.