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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, a Lincoln Center Theater premiere that depicts how a trio of polyamorous lovers have a life-changing impact on two suburban married couples. After a sexy and amusing first act, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage goes downhill quickly, prompting one to ask the question, “What the hell just happened?”
Director Rebecca Taichman, whose previous collaborations with the playwright include The Oldest Boy and Stage Kiss, has assembled a terrific ensemble for this production: The cast includes Oscar winner Marisa Tomei; Lena Hall, who won a Tony Award for her gender-bending performance in the Broadway revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch; and Robin Weigert, whose extensive television credits include HBO’s Deadwood and Big Little Lies. But while those actors and the rest of the cast deliver faultless performances, they’re ultimately undone by the problematic script.
After an unnerving opening visual in which we see a woman remove the bloodied carcass of a skinned animal hanging upside down, the play begins with an encounter between Jane (Weigert) and Michael (Brian Hutchison) and their best friends George (Tomei), short for Georgie, and Paul (Oscar Metwally). Jane rhapsodizes about her magnetically charismatic temp co-worker Diana (Hall), known to everyone as “Pip,” who lives with two men and is romantically involved with both. As Jane describes it, the trio’s polyamorous relationship doesn’t involve sex between the men, but rather each of them separately with Pip, who serves as “the hub.” That’s not the only unique aspect of Pip’s life; she also only eats meat from animals she’s hunted and killed herself.
Fascinated by the story, the quartet decides to invite Pip and her lovers (David McElwee, Austin Smith) to a New Year’s Eve party. The sexy young woman easily lives up to her advance billing, dazzling the two couples with her freewheeling manner and a provocative karaoke rendition of “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.” (Indeed, the way Hall, a talented singer, croons the familiar number, such lyrics as “She’ll be driving six white horses when she comes” take on a whole new meaning). Fueled by hash brownies, the evening eventually turns into the beginnings of group sex. The passionate activities are rudely interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Jane and Michael’s 16-year-old daughter Jenna (Naian Gonzalez Norvind), who proves understandably shocked at seeing her mother naked.
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. Venturing out to hunt deer together, Pip and George are arrested when they accidentally shoot a dog. Pip escapes jail via a method that won’t be revealed here, but you’ll find a hint in the imaginative drawing festooning the Playbill cover. By the end, our perception of what we’ve witnessed will be seriously tested, but not in particularly intriguing fashion.
Whatever the playwright (a Pulitzer Prize finalist for In the Next Room, or the vibrator play) wants to express, whether the fluid nature of relationships; the elusiveness of identities (there must be something to the deceptive names of the characters); or the ways in which children and parents perceive one another’s sexuality, remains elusive. Taichman’s staging imaginatively teases the play’s mysteries, but ultimately to little avail.
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.
Venue: Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, New York
Cast: Lena Hall, Brian Hutchison, David McElwee, Omar Metwally, Naian Gonzalez Norvind, Austin Smith, Marisa Tomei, Robin Weigert
Playwright: Sarah Ruhl
Director: Rebecca Taichman
Set designer: David Zinn
Costume designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Music: Todd Almond
Sound designer: Matt Hubbs
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater
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Jeriana San Juan