The two WASPish couples at the center of Sarah Ruhl’s sexy/bonkers magical realist tragicomedy How to Transcend a Happy Marriage could have walked in from any number of other American plays. You know the type: they read The Atlantic, wear Joy Division T-shirts un-ironically, start each new year by reading a play, and fall over themselves to avoid the appearance of political incorrectness. Their living rooms are the familiar battlegrounds of bourgeois drama from Akhtar to Zola. The bloody goat carcass suspended over David Zinn’s set, though, makes it clear that we’re in the Ruhl-iverse, and little about the next two hours will be business-as-usual.
Not much actually happens in Happy Marriage. Paul (Omar Metwally) and George, short for “Georgina,” (Marisa Tomei), hear from best pals Jane (Robin Weigert) and Michael (Brian Hutchison) about a temp named Pip at Jane’s firm who lives in a polyamorous relationship with two men and hunts her own meat. Incredulous, they resolve to invite this curious specimen over for dinner to see for themselves, and on New Year’s Eve Pip (Lena Hall, worlds away from the grungy glam decadence of her Tony-winning role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch) flits in like a granola Katy Perry, beaux in tow.
The other two points of her pansexual, multicultural triangle (“the strongest shape”) are David (Hamilton’s Austin Smith), a black mathematician “from everywhere and nowhere” who doesn’t believe in either nationality or the individual and takes perverse pleasure in his ambiguous accent, and Freddie (David McElwee), who doesn’t do much of anything, but still can’t resist mentioning that he went to Harvard. Paul & George & Jane & Michael try to play it cool despite their obvious kinky bemusement. A few hash brownies and one naughty rendition of “Coming ’Round the Mountain” later…
Let’s just say that you’ll never read Where the Wild Things Are the same again.
One of the great joys of Ruhlian drama is luxuriating in its complex nest of ideas. Ruhl weaves together resonances, symbols, and cultural and historical allusions with a birdlike craftsmanship that makes her one of the most interesting deconstructionists working in North American theater today. She animates the well-trodden domestic spheres of Ibsen and Chekhov with a kooky, literate aesthetic. Though Happy Marriage combines the road-less-traveled melancholy of The Clean House with The Vibrator Play’s sexy-time frankness, Ruhl’s dense tissue of quotations, taking in everything from the Bible to The Ethical Slut, makes familiar concerns feel new.
Biblical symbolism is applied with all the delicacy of a steam shovel throughout, in fact, but The Bacchae is perhaps the play’s most meaningful cultural touchstone. Euripides’ vision of violent feminine power is the subject of one of Happy Marriage’s best jokes: Paul asks George if she’s been “reading The Bacchae again” after she confesses to a morbid concern for the future. George, ashamed, replies that she’s never actually read it because she could never master Greek. More fool her; if she had, she might have been better prepared for the consequences of her unraveling. Love and death are never far apart, and both are spiritual concerns, the play seems to tell us. Pip describes a Masai sacrifice ritual in awed reverence to her rapt audience, but quickly corrects herself after referring to it as a “slaughter” in a telling Freudian slip.
Ruhl's thinly-traced caricatures exist on a knife's edge: too little feeling in the performance, and they disappear from view; too much, and they become camp. Metwally, best known for the 2007 film Rendition, and TV mainstay Weigert (Marvel's Jessica Jones, Big Little Lies), the standouts among a strong cast, negotiate this dangerous territory best, providing a beating heart for their characters that doesn't exist on the page.
Rebecca Taichman directs with an ease borne out of her long artistic association with Ruhl. Her staging echoes the rhythms of Ruhl’s spare, muscular dialogue, kinetic in instants of high energy and stately when things turn somber. She finds ample opportunity to intensify the play’s dense erotic patchwork, such as when an offering of a brownie becomes an act of domination and submission. The climax (so to speak) that she constructs between the two couples is still and affecting, even if marred by an overreaching final monologue. The main characters may be named after two Beatles and the kids from Mary Poppins, and Pip may wear a ring made from the anus of a goat, but the play still manages to breach a muted splendor.
For all the play’s variegated pleasures, however, it’s hard not to wish that such talented artists would begin to look beyond the walls of the privileged few. George’s closing monologue paints a picture of global harmony; though shaded by a discordant note in Todd Almond’s musical underscoring, the sentiment is at odds with the rest of the play, which pokes fun at the well-to-do but mines their lives for universal significance. After the flood, Noah’s dove pays a visit, but what about the poor vermin who didn’t make it onto the ark?
How to Transcend a Happy Marriage runs through May 7 at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (150 West 65th St., between Broadway and Amsterdam). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday–Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $87. To purchase them, visit telecharge.com.