New Ruhl: “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” Doesn’t

Omar Metwally, Marisa Tomei, Lena Hall, Austin Smith and David McElwee in Sarah Ruhl's How to Transcend a Happy Marriage. Photos: Kyle Froman.

How to Transcend a Happy Marriage, Sarah Ruhl’s latest play, is now running at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. The first question I have about it is this: is this just the latest play of Ruhl’s to be produced but not the latest play she’s written? Is it a play she wrote some time ago? I ask because what’s on view came at me as just so much juvenilia. As it rolled on, I kept thinking that the play looked a good deal like a young playwright discoursing brashly on what she thought she’d wisely concluded about the older generation. Not a mid-career playwright discoursing brashly on the same.

When Peter Kaczorowski’s lights go up on David Zinn’s set, two couples — George (Marisa Tomei), short for Georgina, and Paul (Omar Metwally); and Jane (Robin Weigert) and Michael (Brian Hutchison) — chat over delectable-looking hors d’oeuvres. Jane is mentioning Pip, a woman with whom she works and who has boasted about living in intimate circumstances with two men. The other three are instantly taken with the topic of conversation and conjecture about the possibilities of the arrangement.

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Before they’ve bandied too many notions about this intriguing second-hand ménage á trois, they decide that imagining the set-up isn’t as good as having it explained to them first-hand. So they invite the three participants to a New Year’s Eve party. Also pertinent is the fact that Pip is, or was, a vegetarian. She’d informed Jane that if she’s to eat meat again, she must be prepared to slaughter the meat.

This explains the action that precedes the play. As the audience enters, they see a slab of meat, looking not unlike a Louise Bourgeois sculpture, hanging upstage. A woman garbed in white enters, removes the slab from a hook and carries it away.

Marisa Tomei

The woman, in fact, is Pip (Lena Hall). When spotted next, she’s in company of David (Austin Smith) and Freddie (David McElwee), and the promised follow-up gathering is underway. Jane, George, Paul and Michael aren’t shy about asking everything they want to know. Pip, David and Freddie are neither reluctant to tell all nor afraid to flirt with those assembled.

If I say that among their party gifts is a tray of Alice B. Toklas brownies, do you see what’s in the wind?

Some reading the previous sentence may regard it as a spoiler, but I say no. The one spoiling things is Ruhl. She has to realize the minute such brownies are brought into play, where else can she be going?

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To director Rebecca Taichman’s credit, she stages the sex play well, which ends — here’s a spoiler I won’t include — when something shocks the orgiasts out of their fast-and-loose time.

That’s Ruhl’s first act. The second act begins in the woods, where George is discovered carrying a bow and arrow. She and Pip are there to kill an animal, of course. An unseen animal approaches. George draws, releases and misses — the animal, that is. What she hits is another spoiler that I won’t reveal for love or money.

Her kill, though, leads to Ruhl’s home stretch where, as a result of the publicity George has received, she and Paul temporarily move in with Jane and Michael. While there, they’re concerned with their problems, how events are affecting Jane and Michael, and about Jane and Michael’s missing daughter, Jenna (Naian González Norvind).

I neglected to report that when George shot her arrow and was jailed for lacking a hunting permit, Pip disappeared. All George had by which to confirm Pip’s presence was a white feather and three drops of blood. Yes, along with everything else Ruhl tosses into her sex salad, she adds magic realism.

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Over the last several years a big fuss has been made over Ruhl. How to Transcend a Happy Marriage received an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, and other awards and commissions have preceded Ruhl’s way, including a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship and the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for a distinguished American playwright. Although I enjoyed her In the Next Room, or the vibrator play (another consideration of sexual mores), I haven’t been convinced of Ruhl’s superiority.

I recognize that what she’s after in this play are the hypocrisies that accompany sexual behavior in our society. But she’s only getting at it, truly, during the final few …Happy Marriage minutes. Before that, the most she’s come up with is a 21st century version of the wife-swapping comedies that occasionally surfaced — wink, wink, nudge, nudge — in the 1960s and ’70s. Perhaps the most memorable, because its on film, is The Ice Storm, Ang Lee’s overrated 1997 film, set in 1973.

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Something even stranger is going on with ...Happy Marriage: Ruhl looks to be aiming an homage at Edward Albee. I have no idea why, but I count allusions to three of his works. The most obvious is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which one couple invites another and sex is a one of the results. Here, it’s two couples inviting a threesome, but you get the idea. Both have aspects of “Get the Guest” from Albee’s play, in different ways.

When George and Paul move in and a wayward daughter becomes a topic, that’s a spin on Albee’s A Delicate Balance. Finally, there’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? No more need be said about that one, except that Ruhl’s reasons for referencing it in …Happy Marriage is a mystery to me.

Although in this play the two couples are relatively equal, Ruhl does skew the attention towards George. (Pop quiz: What was the name of Martha’s husband in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Ah, now you understand.) George narrates from time to time, and she also has that hunting excursion. (Tomei gets the only solo bow at curtain.) But the playwright initially indicates she’s employing both couples as representatives of middle-class deportment. She really gives no hint why, in the long run, this is George’s story rather than all of theirs.

Every one of the eight actors — with Taichman dispatching them well — gives the playwright what she wants. It’s not their fault that what Ruhl wants is sometimes predictable, sometimes obscure. For one, what’s with that white feather, anyway? What’s with the egg-laying dove after that? Beats me.