Reviews come in for 'How to Transcend a Happy Marriage'
Plunging Into Polyamory With ‘How to Transcend a Happy Marriage’
By Ben Brantley
In 1969, two married couples took off their clothes and jumped into one accommodatingly wide bed. Thus did Paul Mazursky’s satirical film “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” claim a little piece of cinematic immortality....
Ah, the clumsiness, the tortured soul-searching, the naïveté of those heady, experimental times. People today of course are far more at ease with their bodies and their vast potential for erotic self-expression. Why, just look at Paul and George and Michael and Jane, the uneasily swinging [sic] spouses of Sarah Ruhl’s “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage”....
And marvel at how little has changed. The evidence of this idea-inebriated, unsteady comedy ... is that when it comes to matters of the heart (and the libido), middle-aged married folks are as scared, curious and confused as ever.
...The opening scene, which finds two sets of married friends discussing the idea of polyamory over wine and cheese, has the chipper blitheness of those comedies of middle-class manners that were once the bread and butter of Broadway. Jane (Robin Weigert), a lawyer, is describing a fascinating new temp in her office to an avid audience of three: Jane’s husband, Michael (Brian Hutchinson), and their best friends, George (Ms. Tomei) and Paul (Omar Metwally).
The temp is called Pip, and it seems she not only shares her bed with the two men with whom she lives but also personally kills the animals she eats. ... They decide that they must meet this exotic creature and her companions. A New Year’s Eve gathering is arranged, chez Jane and Michael. “And our lives would change forever,” says George (short for Georgia)....
[Pip and her partners] show up bearing hash brownies, sanctimonious life philosophies and a load of multidirectional sex appeal. After some literate but lubricious conversation about Pythagorean triangles and animal sacrifice, Pip performs a double-entendre karaoke version of “She’ll Be Comin’ ’Round the Mountain.”
The song turns out to be the foreplay for a polymorphous orgy in which identities melt and merge. And just before the first act ends, who should burst in on these intertwined, grown-up bodies but Jane and Michael’s understandably outraged teenage daughter, Jenna (Naian González Norvind).
So far, so formulaic, right? But what follows does not adhere to the rules of standard-issue sex comedies. The walls of Mr. Zinn’s set disappear, for one thing. Then there’s that plot turn that hinges on an Ovidian metamorphosis (appropriately, as George teaches Latin). Or maybe not, given that the people involved were under the influence of psychedelic mushroom tea as well as hashish.
...But the elements never quite coalesce into a single fluid stream of thought or story.... Despite its portrayal of uncommon events, “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” remains stuck in the conjectural realm of its opening scene, where George and Paul and Jane and Michael are still just trying on daring ideas on for size.
Read the whole review (online March 20; in print March 21 [on the front page of the paper's Section C, New York edition]).
● In this morning's Newsday:
Play questions monogamy
By Linda Winer
What looks alarmingly like a dead, skinned goat hangs upside down from a hook at the start of Sarah Ruhl’s “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage.” A willowy woman enters, seems to whisper something to the head of the goat, then tenderly unhooks it and carries it away.
...I admit I’ve have been slow to warm to the prolific [playwright Sarah] Ruhl, twice a Pulitzer finalist and a MacArthur fellow.... But this new play is a subversive enchantment. It is part absurd domestic serio-comedy, part erotic magic realism, unflinching about taboos and about questioning that, just maybe, monogamy isn’t enough.
...Directed without sensationalism but with intrepid good humor by Rebecca Taichman (“Indecent”), the inevitable bacchanalian reveries ensue. But so does heady talk about Pythagorean triangles, the immortality of a Bach minuet, grief, architecture and why women are expected to lose their “animal nature” after childbirth.
But why, why, does the production have to bring a non-domesticated animal, a live dove, onto the stage for the final scene? Everything pales next to the discomfort of a live creature. For a play that toys with ideals of “radical honesty,” either everything else has to be real or, better yet, the bird should be fake.
The whole review (online March 20, in print March 21.)
● Deadline calls it "trippy":
Marisa Tomei Is Dazzled (And Confused) In ‘How To Transcend A Happy Marriage’
By Jeremy Gerard
...Ruhl has one of the liveliest intellects of any playwright today. Her plays ... thrum with ideas and careen between realism and non-realism in a way that I think only finds a parallel in the best work of Christopher Durang. As with Durang, when everything aligns, the work provokes a kind of euphoria.... And when everything doesn’t? What’s the sound of ideas spinning off into the ether?
...Pip is exceptionally beautiful and she’s polyamorous, Jane reports, the word tripping off her tongue as though it is far more common than I’ve noticed. She lives with two men who love her – apparently all the time, as lately she has been coming to work exhausted.
...Not unexpectedly, Pip, Freddie and David upend their hosts’ notions of normalcy, mainly regarding love and sex.... George turns out to be the true seeker in the group, and most of Act II is taken up with the places – oh, the places – Pip takes her, including, at one point, jail, the aftermath of a deer hunt gone all wrong.
...How To Transcend A Happy Marriage reads better than it plays in this production – the fine work of fine actors notwithstanding. The takeaway is more head-scratching than transcendent, as evanescent as Pip herself proves to be.
The whole review (March 20).
● At Vulture.com, Jesse Green enjoys showing how he wields a deft knife:
Typically, Sarah Ruhl’s plays sound like your smartest friend stoned. They unfurl in tendrils of dialogue that are both organic and perseverant, fantastic and philosophical. Because the plots are not especially logical, the characters often seem freaked out by the situations they face and the new thoughts they are hatching. ... The untrammeled play of the imagination as a means of normalizing unfamiliar ideas seems to be her priority, and never has she been as free with her storytelling as in How to Transcend a Happy Marriage, ... Ruhl’s stonedest work yet.
I don’t mean to harsh anyone’s mellow, but that’s not totally a compliment. The demilitarized zone between fanciful and inane is one that’s better left unbreached.
...Pip and David and Freddie, the polyamorists, are presented to the audience, I hope deliberately, as ridiculous caricatures. Pip, with streaks of blue and feathers in her hair, wearing short cut-offs on New Year’s Eve, is a free-spirit cliché; ... David (pronounced Daveed) is a vaguely European poseur spouting unlikely claptrap about Pythagoras, and Freddie is, well, not much of anything except a pretentious stick insect. (Latin, he tells us, is “too beautiful for this world.”)....
Yes, there’s an orgy. Or is there? Though Tomei beautifully pulls off her confused arias of overprivilege and its inchoate longings — she’s the kind of woman whose great embarrassments in life include never having learned Greek — Ruhl does not intend for us to take the story literally. Neither does the production....
Unfortunately this surrealism, however conscious it is as an esthetic choice to support the theme of personality disassociation, undermines the play at every turn. How are we supposed to take seriously its invitations to consider ethical food practices and polyamory when the proponents of those ideas are so absurd and condescending? Nor do we feel like joining the older group in their investigation of these ideas, when they are painted as so neurotic (the women) and shallow (the men).
The method, it turns out, is not as loosey-goosey as it seems. What appear to be discursions and sidetracks in the storytelling are actually (you eventually realize) just further twists of the vise of meaning. The play is littered with symbols Ruhl works very hard to whip into concordance: birds, eggs, children, Latin, meat, music. Even poor Pythagoras is dragged into the polyamory theme; it’s those damned triangles.... The proportion of ideas to people is out-of-whack. As with polyamory, it seems to me, the problem isn’t having too much feeling to share; it’s having too little.
Whole review (March 20).
● Entertainment Weekly:
By Breanna L. Heldman
“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.
...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 ... 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 gave up trying to understand where Pip ended and an egg-laying bird began in the second act.
...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.
Whole review (March 20).
By Marilyn Stasio
There is abundant sex and nudity in Sarah Ruhl’s new play ... along with some brainy conversation about the ethics of animal slaughter. The setting for this experimental piece is exceptionally handsome, and under the sure directorial hand of Rebecca Taichman, a tip-top cast headed by Marisa Tomei performs with brio. Nonetheless, the show is both baffling and boring.
Whole review (March 21).
● The Hollywood Reporter:
By Frank Scheck
First, a confession: I’ve never been to an orgy. But I imagine they probably start out as a great deal of fun before eventually becoming tiresome and exhausting. Such is also the case with the new play by Sarah Ruhl....
...Featuring fast and funny dialogue, the play initially seems to be operating on all cylinders. But the second act, which delves into magical realism, becomes hopelessly murky and confusing.
...Still, the evening is certainly not hard to sit through, thanks especially to its three vital female stars, whose characters register as sexy, smart and strong. Weigert makes the grounded Jane infinitely appealing; Hall vibrantly embodies Pip’s larger-than-life qualities; and Tomei anchors the proceedings with earthy vivacity. Their efforts are nearly, but not quite enough, to transcend the problematical aspects of How to Transcend a Happy Marriage.
Whole review (March 20).
● In contrast to the above, The Wrap's reviewer actually gets the play, or so he thinks:
By Robert Hofler
...When a play begins with a goat, you know you’re in for an evening of heavy lifting. Generally, that’s not a good sign. Two modern dramas, however, show us how engrossing that kind of weighty workout can be....
Equally provocative and enlightening is Sarah Ruhl’s new play, “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage.” That one of the eight characters ends up as a dove and lays three eggs on stage should also deter no theatergoer from seeing [it].
...Ruhl definitely knows how to get a play going in its first few minutes. Jane reveals everything she knows about being polyamorous, which has nothing to do with swinging or swapping partners; and soon the two couples are making plans to invite the polyamorous triad over for drinks one night to learn all about loving and having sex among three people.
The operative word here is not “polyamorous” but rather “triad,” and Ruhl conveniently stacks her play with mathematicians, architects, musicians and a teacher of Latin (of all things). Squares and triangles, as well as couples, can be restrictive, but there is also inspiration to be found in those mathematical confines....
“How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” is two hours with intermission, and it abounds with situations that lead its characters to say the most quotable things, all of which should be experienced live in the theater and not in any critic’s review. They’re that memorable.
...It’s a quibble, but “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” so abounds with ideas and novel situations that Ruhl’s characters occasionally take a backseat. It may be why Ruhl writes plays and not novels. In the theater, actors can fill in with flesh, blood and emotion what is a mere outline in the script, and here the playwright is blessed with a magnificent cast under the always sensitive direction of Rebecca Taichman.... Even though George’s journey is fantastical, the actress makes us believe and empathize with her every awkward step forward.
Whole review (March 20).
● And more.
Update: Actress Marisa Tomei from the play appeared in The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (online March 31). Discussion of the play starts at 3:45