When a play opens to a happy, healthy couple engaged in happy, healthy foreplay, you know they're in for trouble. In All Aboard the Marriage Hearse, written and directed by Matt Morillo, the happy couples' segue from bliss to fury is quick but organic. Sean and Amy have been together for three years. He doesn't believe in marriage. She does. Morillo is a sharp playwright who who deftly intertwines comic zingers with impassioned disputes and understands how to pace his own script. His second published play, Marriage Hearse premiered last year at Theater for the New City, which has revived the original production. Nick Coleman and Jessica Moreno reprise the roles they originated, and their ease with both their characters and each other make the play work. As Sean and Amy, they are affable and impassioned, and their chemistry is terrific. If we as an audience didn't understand why they should be together in the first place, the play would fall apart. It doesn't: Coleman and Moreno quickly establish how well-suited their characters are, then spend the rest of the play mining the underlying friction that plagues their relationship. Amy and Sean both have firm, diametrically opposed convictions regarding marriage. The play consists of their all-night fight over the issue -- he gets the "logical" arguments; she the "emotional" ones -- but while their neatly scripted points are occasionally insightful, they are rarely fresh.
Even if you accept the play's traditional notion that women want marriage and men do not, the year-old play still feels dated. In 2009, the practice of upper middle class urbanites living in a committed, monogamous relationship without an official marriage license is hardly as radical as the production implies. Sean, and therefore the play, believes the primary problem with marriage is its permanence. Morillo's script argues that, should a couple fall out of love, they should be free to part ways without dealing with the hassles of church or state; it seems the play's real problem is not with marriage but with divorce.
Conspicuously absent from Sean and Amy's debate is any recognition of the current controversy over same-sex marriage, an improbable omission in an era when questions surrounding the definition and purpose of marriage are at the forefront of a national conversation. Each character could borrow rhetoric from both sides of that debate to terrific effect, enhancing their arguments and keeping the play from feeling like it belongs to a different decade. Instead, they rehash whether or not it's healthy for married couples to stay together for the sake of the kids, with Sean insisting, "That's what f-ed up our generation!" Really? At most, they are thirty-five-years old; the 1970s and 1980's were full of at least as much cultural insistence that children are strong enough to cope with divorce as concern that it leaves them scarred.
A sleepy question early in the play of whose turn it is to clean the kitchen is about the only indication that the play is set solidly in the twenty-first century. Even Amy and Sean's gendered professions feel plucked from a smart play of a generation ago: she teaches elementary school and he's a humorist at the New Yorker. It would be interesting -- and plausible -- to see someone stage a production of Marriage Hearse set slightly earlier in American history. Certainly were the play set a couple of decades ago, Amy and Sean's religious differences (he's Catholic, she's Jewish, neither practices much) could add more dramatic tension to the prospect of their nuptials. Instead, while their disparate religious upbringings nicely inform Coleman and Moreno's characterizations, the use of duel religions functions primarily as a way of emphasizing the multiple religious and political dimensions to the institution of marriage. That prevents the argument against marriage from becoming a polemic against a singular religious or political practice. It's a smart choice indicative of the play as a whole: structurally savvy in the service of character and plot but lacking wide social import.
"I'm not the first person to come up with this idea," says Sean of his marital skepticism. Indeed, he is not. One need only look to recent New York theater seasons to see marriage reexamined; last season's Drunken City by Adam Bock, at Playwrights Horizons, explored what significance marriage holds for contemporary twenty-somethings; the season before Paul Rudnick's Regrets Only questioned the importance of marriage at MTC. Curiously, the current production at Theater for the New City on the LES is not nearly so edgy as the productions further uptown. If it lacks potency as the political play it wants to be, Marriage Hearse succeeds as what it is: a character-driven love story.