BWW Review: HOW TO TRANSCEND A HAPPY MARRIAGE at Custom Made Theatre Co.
How to Transcend a Happy Marriage
Witten by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Adam L. Sussman
Custom Made Theatre Co.
George and Paul, Michael and Jane, two erudite New Jersey couples muse over a range of topics at a dinner party sounding, to use a quaint phrase, like caricature bourgeoisie. They read The Atlantic and banter in political correctness that borders on a spoof of white privileged liberalism. When Jane mentions a polyamorous co-worker who happens to ritually slaughter her meat, the foursome become intrigued. Their individual curiosities about an alternative approach to sexual relations becomes the kindling that ignites a fire in Sarah Ruhl's smart, very funny, characteristically quirky new adult comedy.
Director Adam Sussman allows Ruhl's witty script to shine, while coaxing some fine performances from his well-chosen cast. The couples are excited to share New Year's Eve with the mysterious woman named Pip and her two live-in boyfriends, a night that will change their lives dramatically. The fourth wall is broken as Paul (Matt Weimar) and George (Karen Offereins) address the audience with their nervousness and excitement.
The part begins awkwardly as the couples meet the erotically charged Pip (Fenner), the gentle thinker David (Nick Trengrove) and the quiet drifter Freddy (Louel Senores). The 'straight' couples have so many questions, each one answered honestly and sincerely by the 'triad'. Ruhl, influenced by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy's 1997 book "The Ethical Slut", offer these two couples a glimpse into the world of open marriages, casual sex and polyamory. Here in 2020 San Francisco, where these concepts have become second nature, the party scene might seem like an anachronistic bacchanal of the late 60's. But for the two couples presented here, the attitudes and actions of these three is new fertile ground for them to discover hidden identities within themselves.
Jane (Hilary Hesse) and her husband Michael (Malcolm Rodgers) seemingly have it all, as do Paul and George. But there are wrinkles in the veneer of their 'normal' relationships. Glimpses of unrest are evident, like when George chides her husband for giving up on his lucrative architecture business for theoretical book writing. The triad are not presented as kooks, although their lifestyles elicit laughs from the audience. Ruhl, a wicked satirist is poking fun at every character here and no one is spared her barbs.
When Pip performs a sexually suggestive karaoke performance of "She'll Be Comin Round the Mountain" (changing comin' to cumming), the group, already high on hash brownies, gives into carnal lust and an orgy ensues. George becomes the sole narrator as she explains the erotic charge of the scene, interrupted by the appearance of Michael and jane's teenage daughter Jenna (Celeste Kamiya). The young girl is horrified and disgusted by the visual and the revelry turns to shame and regret.
The second act takes on a sense of fantasy and altered reality, a technique Ruhl skillfully used in her brilliant last play Becky Nurse of Salem. George and Pip bond over a hunt to kill a deer, end up shooting a neighbor's dog and go to jail. Pip disappears and George believes she's turned into a bird. George and Paul are hounded by animal rights activists, Michael and Jane anguish over the disappearance of their daughter. Seems the two couple's old lives have crumbled. The ideals they held have shifted and Ruhl touches on themes of friendship, marriage and a return to the wildness that has been sublimated by all.
How to Transcend a Happy Marriage soars on Ruhl's intelligent script and fine performances across the board. By challenging the concept of monogamous marriage, the play's introductions of polyamory can be a metaphor for many other alternative lifestyle choices facing us in 2020 and the future. If the hesitant couples presented here can have their minds shifted by new exposures, all things may be possible.
How to Transcend a Happy Marriage continues through February 16, 2020 at Custom Made Theatre Co., 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco. Tickets available at www.custommade.org or by calling 415-798-2682.
Photos by Jay Yamada