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A CurtainUp Review
How To Transcend A Happy Marriage
Ruhl's current play, directed by Rebecca Taichman, invites us on a journey taking wildly roaming paths — erotic, humorous, mystical and sanctimonious. There's what you see and then there is what is really going on.
In the opening scene a dead, skinned goat is hanging from a hook. A young woman enters the room, gently looks at the goat and then removes it from the hook and carries it out of the room.
Switch to David Zinn's comfortable living room set where two couples, long-time best friends in their mid-40's, are drinking wine, nibbling on finger foods and discussing life. Attention picks up when Jane (Robin Weigert), mentions a young temp in her office named Pip who is in a polyamorous relationship with two live-in boyfriends. It seems Pip also hunts for her own meat, asks for the animal's forgiveness before slaughtering it, and then uses every part of the creature.
Who wouldn't be fascinated in this curious, feral character? Jane's husband, Michael (Brian Hutchison) and the other couple, George (played with a mix of curiosity and conventionality by Marisa Tomei) and her husband Paul (Omar Metwally), all suggest that Jane invite Pip and her two boyfriends over for dinner on New Year's Eve? Paul offers to kill a duck himself and cook it for dinner.
Comes New Year's Eve, an Paul's duck intentions do not turn out well— neither the slaughtering or the cooking. Suffice it to say, that they send out for Peking duck.
Pip turns out to be a wild child portrayed with rousing abandon by Lena Hall. She arrives with her roommates: Freddie (David McElwee), a sweet, aimless Harvard graduate and David ("Dah-veed"), a mathematical theorist (convincingly played by Austin Smith with an unidentifiable accent). David who delivers sanctimonious theories about differential geometry and Pythagoras is dismissive of Paul's comments about architecture but impressed with Michael's understanding of triads, triangles and music.
When all begin nibbling the vegan hash brownies Freddie has brought and the wine kicks in, inhibitions loosen. Pip delivers a double-entendre, pole-dancing karaoke rendition of "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain," that ignites the submerged basic animal instincts of the others. The New Year comes with special enthusiasm as Taichman gracefully directs an fluid erotic coupling, an illusory exploration of civilized versus primal human nature.
George (short for "Georgie") who's wife, mother, Latin teacher and intermittent narrator, here faces the audience to describe the orgy being performed on stage. She says, "This strange jungle garden just sprouting out in the living room, as in Where the Wild Things Are. "
I remembered Open Marriage, a 1970s best seller by Nena and George O'Neill, that inspired similar cocktail conversations over 40 years ago. What is unexpected here is that at the pivotal point, Jane and Michael's 16-year-old daughter, Jenna (Naian González Norvind), walks in and is aghast with teenage outrage
Act Two delves into what happened in Act One, and why. Many questions are left to interpretation, like the skinned goat hanging on the stage before the play starts. What the story about Paul's duck? Are these killed animals forecasts of the animalistic undercurrents of Jane, Michael, George and Paul? How believable is it that these four close friends, all well-educated and articulate, choose to invite an unfamiliar office temp and her two lovers for to a small New Year's party. Is there a connection between Pip, feathers and a live dove laying three eggs?
Moods are enhanced by Peter Kaczorowski's intricate lighting moods over Zinn's sets. Susan Hilferty defines the characters through their costumes— long silky skirts for the restless yearning of George, the loose shirt, short skirt, and patterned black tights worn by free-spirited Pip, earth-toned casual clothes for the men. Original music is provided by Todd Almond and sound design by Matt Hubbs.
The cast is praiseworthy. However, the basic probing of love and sexuality in How to Transcend a Happy Marriage has already been explored years ago — just without Sarah Ruhl's jigsaw puzzle of metaphors and mysticism.
Editor's Note: Other plays by Sarah Ruhl reviewed at Curtainup
Scenes From Court Life or the whipping boy and his prince 2016
Oldest Boy also at the Mitzi Newhouse 2014
Stage Kiss 2014
In the Next Room or The Vibrator Plays Broadway 2009
Dead Man's Cell Phone 2008
The Clean House Also at the Mitzi Newhouse 2006
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How To Transcend A Happy Marriage by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Rebecca Taichman
Cast: Lena Hall (Pip), Brian Hutchison (Michael), David McElwee (Freddie), Omar Metwally (George), Naian Gonzaez Norvind (Jenny), Austin Smith (David), Marisa Tomei (George), Robin Weigert (Jane)
Sets by David Zinn
Costumes by Susan Hilferty
Lighting by Peter Kaczorowski
Sound and original music by Todd Almond
Stage Manager: Charles M. Turner III
Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with 1 intermission
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater 150 West 65th Street
From 2/23/17; opening 3/26/17; closing 5/07/17
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors at 3/23/17 press performance
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