“Hump the Hosts”
The first thing you notice when entering the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre to see two-time Pulitzer finalist Sarah Ruhl’s How to Transcend a Happy Marriage is a full-sized animal carcass (a goat? a deer?), skinned and ready to be butchered. It hangs from a rope over David Zinn’s fashionable living room set—backed by a cyclorama covered with giant floral images. As the play is about to start, a young woman enters, unhooks the carcass, tosses it over her shoulder, and walks off.
|Omar Metwally, Marisa Tomei, Lena Hall, Austin Smith, David McElwee. Photo: Kyle Forman.|
Ruhl’s multipronged discussion comedy, crisply directed by Rebecca Taichman, is preachy, uneven, and provocative; it’s also confusing, occasionally funny, intermittently engrossing, and intellectually ambitious, covering things like, among others, polyamory, meat-eating, the veneer of civilization covering man’s inner savage, the parent-child dynamic regarding their mutual sexuality, and marital happiness in general. Intimations of Edward Albee lurk here and there.
One of its two highly educated, fortyish couples seeking how to transcend their happy marriage is Georgia (Marisa Tomei), a.k.a. George, and Paul (Omar Metwally). She’s a teacher of Latin; he’s an ex-architect who writes about architectural theory because he became tired of doing lucrative bathroom renovations (an architect? Bathroom renovations?). The other is Jane (Robin Weigert), a litigator, and Michael (Brian Hutchison), a geometry-loving musician who makes his living writing advertising jingles.
During a casual get-together at Jane and Michael’s in suburban New Jersey, Jane informs the others of a beautiful and unusual temp at her office named Pip (Lena Hall), who’s into polyamory and eating only meat she’s killed herself; it’s called “ethical slaughtering,” and it’s she who earlier hauled off the goat. Pip sounds so interesting and, to the men, arousing, that she and the two bisexual guys in their “thrupple”—a sweetly androgynous Harvard alum, Freddie (David McElwee), and a pompously brainy, foreign-accented geometrician, David (Austin Smith)—“Dahveed” to you—are invited over to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Given Michael and Brian’s conveniently shared interests, expect lots of talk about squares and triangles.
The parties assemble on New Year’s Eve, with Paul bringing take-out Peking duck because, having hoped to satisfy Pip’s proclivities for freshly slaughtered/sacrificed meat, his plan to slaughter a duck and cook it himself went wrong. Before long, hash brownies do their job and a (fully clothed), seven-person saturnalia is underway. Or so we’re led to believe. We’ll have to wait to discover what Michael and Jane’s 16-year-old, Jenna (Naian Gonzàlez Norvind), has to say.
|Marisa Tomei, Lena Hall. Photo: Kyle Froman.|
Most of Act Two, however, drops the drawing room comedy business and takes us into a snowy forest for a bizarre, bow-and-arrow deer hunting scene between Pip and George that leads to their being thrown in jail for a mishap you’ll find either tragic, funny, or ridiculous. Realism devolves into magic realism, with Pip transforming into an egg-laying dove (the trained one playing the part should complain over its lack of a credit), along with other surprises that move the play into a new direction, including George increasingly serving as fourth wall-breaking Our Town-like narrator. And it might be added having a bird lay eggs during the action is too tempting an invitation for unfriendly critics.
|Marisa Tomei, Omar Metwally, Robin Weigert, Brian Hutchison. Photo: Kyle Forman.|
The acting is slickly professional, and everyone looks just right in Susan Hilferty’s costumes, but no one manages to transcend Ruhl’s contrivances to create a truly believable human being. Hall makes as much of her flamboyant role as could anyone, especially when she launches into an erotically charged karaoke version of “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain,” as you’ve never heard it before. Tomei, looking half her age, has a natural charisma that never fades; she doesn’t quite overcome the artificialities of the chitchat required in the early scenes but gradually comes into her own, especially in the final moments when she delivers a terrific epilogue.
|Marisa Tomei. Photo: Kyle Forman.|
It’s hard to say whether the play’s married couples transcend their happy marriages but it’s easy to say that watching Sarah Ruhl’s play is itself not a transcendent experience.
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre/Lincoln Center
150 W. 65th St., NYC
Through May 7