By Tulis McCall
Jeeze Louise – where do you start? I haven’t a clue. I first knew Sarah Ruhl through her fascinating play Eurydice at Second Stage. She pushed my brain around in my head in all the right ways. The story, well known though it was, was maneuvered into an incarnation that brought life, and light and a little bit of the kitchen sink along with it. With How To Transcend A Happy Marriage she kept me intrigued as well, but wandered off the main road so far that when the play reached its conclusion, it felt more like the bus stopped and we all had to get out as opposed to having reached a destination.
We begin with a deer carcass having upstage center that is tenderly removed and carried off stage. OK – we are on notice. But not so much because what follows is that tired old premise of four well-off forty-something folks (living in a New Jersey burb)having wine, cheese and conversation that is trying to pass for interesting. These people Jane (Robin Weigert) and husband Michael (Brian Hutchison), and their best friends, George (Marisa Tomei) and Paul (Omar Metwally) are well dressed, have no problems, and are looking for something to entertain them. Kind of like the Romans at the Coliseum. So desperate are they that when Jane brings up the subject of the new intern at her law firm, they pounce. Pip (Lena Hall) is a single woman, who slaughters her own meat by the by, in a relationship with two men. They live together and presumably everyone is having sex with everyone – but we don’t know do we? Not for certain. Hmnnnnn.
HEY – here is an idea! Why don’t we invite the three of them over on New Years Eve?
YES! What a good I idea. I cannot imagine anything odd happening with all seven of these people – can you?
Well, Pip and the two other parts of the trinity David (Austin Smith) and Freddie (David McElwee) do indeed show up, dressed like people going to a college dorm party. Pip is in cutoffs so short they appear to be threatening her circulation and the two men never take off their coats. They do, however, bringing – hash brownies. The windup is slow and completely practicable, and soon everyone is tangled up on the couch just in time for Jane and Michael’s daughter Jenna (Naian González Norvind) to return home a little early.
A predictable first act, with all the dots connected.
Any connection to any-thing-at-all is lost in the second act. Pip and George try their hand at deer hunting, chatting all the while as if the deer were deaf. The results are not so good and they end up in jail. When George gets home (we don’t know how long she was in jail) it turns out the neighbors are all in an uproar and Pip has disappeared. She is MIA. It is time for some truth-telling and soul bearing. What is love? Can you love more than one person? Were they wrong to have a little orgy – and was it even real? Seriously – was it?
We never find out. The only character to whom we relate is the extraordinary Marisa Tomei who is given the tasks of narrating this tale. Her connection to us is revealed well into the play, but it is a welcomed light in a dark and dusty passageway. Her monologues begin as intriguing exposition and eventually explode into majestic arias that Tomei handles understated skill. On their own, each is a jewel. There are also moments where Ruhl shows us her intelligence and takes no prisoners. Pythagorian theory, polyamory, motherhood vs. friendship, and the lives that live underneath our skins that no one sees unless we let them.
But these flashes of light and intrigue are like fireworks that flare and then disappear. They are not connected to one another. They do not guide us, therefore they do not inform us. Therefore we don’t care a whit for anyone, with the exception of George, but we are not certain she will remember we were there. As a matter of fact we are not certain we will remember we were there.
Another production in the, “You must never blame the actors” column.
Credits By Sarah Ruhl; directed by Rebecca Taichman
Cast Lena Hall (Pip), Brian Hutchison (Michael), David McElwee (Freddie), Omar Metwally (Paul), Naian González Norvind (Jenna), Austin Smith (David), Marisa Tomei (George) and Robin Weigert (Jane).
Sets by David Zinn; costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; sound by Matt Hubbs; music by Todd Almond; stage manager, Charles M. Turner III; general manager, Jessica Niebanck; production manager, Paul Smithyman. Presented by Lincoln Center Theater, André Bishop, producing artistic director; Adam Siegel, managing director.
Tickets Through May 7 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, lct.org. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.