Sarah Ruhl's latest play is filled with great actors giving impressive performances. But the lasting impression is less than the sum of its parts.
“I just felt bad for the duck.”
That was one theatergoer’s conclusion about How to Transcend a Happy Marriage during intermission. Still, she and her friend were optimistic that the story would come together in its second half, and they would leave feeling enriched as any theatergoer hopes to. But then, the lights went down the second time and one of the eight characters in the play turned into a bird, so they probably didn’t.
It’s worth noting that the women didn’t even mention the massive goat carcass that hung from the ceiling of the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in Lincoln Center as they took their seats. Thankfully, just as the play begins, a silhouetted Pip (Lena Hall) pulled down said carcass and hauled it off-stage.
But the subject here isn’t meat — though the choice to hunt for one’s own meat and waste nothing is a recurring theme (and thus how one dead duck comes into play) — it’s sexuality. The show opens on George (Marisa Tomei), Paul (Omar Metwally), Jane (Robin Weigert), and Michael (Brian Hutchison), a pair of married couples, longtime friends enjoying some wine and cheese and conversation. Jane mentions this temp in her office, a twentysomething named Pip who’s in a polyamorous relationship with her two live-in boyfriends and hunts her own meat. The quartet is understandably intrigued by the idea of such a trio and curious about Pip and decides to invite them to spend New Year’s Eve with them. Paul even offers to kill a duck for her (the cooking of which he botches and wastes, eliciting my bathroom betties’ empathy).
The literary magazine-like Lincoln Center Theater Review accompanying the show features a number of excerpts and writings on the various ideas discussed in Sarah Ruhl’s play. The introduction, written by the publication’s editor, Alexis Gargagliano, describes the show as operating “on two levels: on the surface, it is a domestic play, whimsical and titillating, but the issues pulsing beneath the surface are profound — identity, sexuality, and an examination between civilization and wild, human nature at its most fundamental and urgent.”
Unfortunately, the story is rather more bewildering than “profound.” Amid a wealth of terrific, clever, laugh-out-loud dialogue — Ruhl is a MacArthur Genius and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, after all — are moments of total realness and others of supernatural wildness, yet none of it quite clicks into place. I struggled to get over the unlikeliness of a young temp’s supervisor inviting her into her home as a dinner guest and that temp accepting… especially on New Year’s Eve. I gave up trying to understand where Pip ended and an egg-laying bird began in the second act.
Still, Tomei’s performance leads this solid cast as a woman entering her middle years and reexamining her roles as a wife, mother, friend, and sexual being. She especially shines when the script has her occasionally, if unevenly, break the fourth wall and address the audience. Much like her Tony-winning turn in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Hall gives a standout performance, and her presence is felt throughout the entire play, despite the short time she spends on stage.
How to Transcend a Happy Marriage is funny and filled with great actors giving impressive, vulnerable performances. But ultimately, the lasting impression is less than the sum of its parts. C