How to Transcend a Happy Marriage

Review by Tulis McCall
March 21, 2017

Jeeze Louise - where do you start? I haven't a clue. I first knew Sarah Ruhl through her fascinating play Eurydice at Second Stage. She pushed my brain around in my head in all the right ways. The story, well known though it was, was maneuvered into an incarnation that brought life, and light and a little bit of the kitchen sink along with it. With How To Transcend A Happy Marriage she kept me intrigued as well, but wandered off the main road so far that when the play reached its conclusion, it felt more like the bus stopped and we all had to get out as opposed to having reached a destination.

We begin with a goat carcass hanging upstage center that is tenderly removed and carried off stage. OK - we are on notice. But not so much because what follows is that tired old premise of four well-off forty-something folks (living in a New Jersey burb) having wine, cheese and conversation that is trying to pass for interesting. These people - Jane (Robin Weight) and husband Michael (Brian Hutchinson), and their best friends, George (Marisa Tomei) and Paul (Omar Metwally) - are well dressed, have no problems, and are looking for something to entertain them. Kind of like the Romans at the Coliseum. So desperate are they that when Jane brings up the subject of the new intern at her law firm, they pounce. Pip (Lena Hall) is a young woman, who slaughters her own meat by the by, and is in a relationship with two men. They live together and presumably everyone is having sex with everyone - but we don't know do we? Not for certain. Hmnnnnn.

HEY - here is an idea! Why don't we invite the three of them over on New Years Eve?
YES! What a good I idea. I cannot imagine anything odd happening with all seven of these people - can you?

Well, Pip and the two other parts of the trinity David (Austin Smith) and Freddie (David McElwee) do indeed show up, dressed like people going to a college dorm party. Pip is in cutoffs so short they appear to be threatening her circulation and the two men never take off their coats. They do, however, bring hash brownies. The windup is slow and completely practicable, and soon everyone is tangled up on the couch just in time for Jane and Michael's daughter Jenna (Naian González Nerving) to return home a little early.

Oh dear!

A predictable first act, with all the dots connected.

Any connection to any-thing-at-all is lost in the second act. Pip and George try their hand at deer hunting, chatting all the while as if the deer were deaf. The results are not so good and they end up in jail. When George gets home (we don't know how long she was in jail) it turns out the neighbors are all in an uproar and Pip has disappeared. She is MIA. It is time for some truth-telling and soul bearing. What is love? Can you love more than one person? Were they wrong to have a little orgy - and was it even real? Seriously - was it?

We never find out. The only character to whom we relate is the extraordinary Marisa Tomei who is given the tasks of narrating this tale. Her connection to us is revealed well into the play, but it is a welcomed light in a dark and dusty passageway. Her monologues begin as intriguing exposition and eventually explode into majestic arias that Tomei handles with understated skill. On their own, each is a jewel. There are also moments where Ruhl shows us her intelligence and takes no prisoners. Pythagorian theory, polyamory, motherhood vs. friendship, and the lives that live underneath our skins that no one sees unless we let them.

But these flashes of light and intrigue are like fireworks that flare and then disappear. They are not connected to one another. They do not guide us, therefore they do not inform us. Therefore we don't care a whit for anyone, with the exception of George, but we are not certain she will remember we were there. As a matter of fact we are not certain we will remember we were there.

Another production in the, "You must never blame the actors" column.

(Tulis McCall)

"The elements never quite coalesce into a single fluid stream of thought or story. Ms. Ruhl is suspended ambivalently here between satire and empathy. Despite its portrayal of uncommon events, 'How to Transcend a Happy Marriage' remains stuck in the conjectural realm of its opening scene, where George and Paul and Jane and Michael are still just trying on daring ideas on for size."
Ben Brantley for New York Times

"Sarah Ruhl's play starts with promise, is skillfully acted and deftly staged by Rebecca Taichman, but after a magical twist, one of the author's signatures, the story about the limits and limitlessness of love turns ungainly and less interesting."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

"A feathery, frolicsome one-act mutates into a mediocre marriage play."
David Cote for Time Out New York

"First, a confession: I've never been to an orgy. But I imagine they probably start out as a great deal of fun before eventually becoming tiresome and exhausting. Such is also the case with the new play by Sarah Ruhl, a Lincoln Center Theater premiere that depicts how a trio of polyamorous lovers have a life-changing impact on two suburban married couples. After a sexy and amusing first act, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage goes downhill quickly, prompting one to ask the question, "What the hell just happened?"."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter

"The setting for this experimental piece (now playing at Lincoln Center Theater) is exceptionally handsome, and under the sure directorial hand of Rebecca Taichman, a tip-top cast headed by Marisa Tomei performs with brio. Nonetheless, the show is both baffling and boring."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety

External links to full reviews from popular press...

New York Times - New York Daily News - Time Out - Hollywood Reporter - Variety

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