In her intriguing new comedy, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage, playwright Sarah Ruhl demonstrates how a pleasant life can still carry more than a whiff of insufficiency. The life in question belongs to George (Marisa Tomei), a fortysomething New Jersey suburbanite. George has a smart, affectionate husband, Paul (Omar Metwally), two (unseen) children, and a pair of close friends in Jane and Michael (Robin Weigert and Brian Hutchison) — also husband and wife, also vaguely discontented.
That’s all very nice, but George hungers for something beyond her encapsulation of the middle-class-American mode of living: “We just work and sleep and order more crap from Amazon.” What’s missing, George feels, is an outlet for her primal urges and her need to connect with others in a meaningful way.
Enter Pip (Lena Hall), a young polyamorous temp in Jane’s legal-aid office. Alluring and wild, Pip could be the goddess Diana incarnate, minus the virginity. She even hunts for her own meat with a bow-and-arrow. On New Year’s Eve, Pip and her two boyfriends (David McElwee and Austin Smith, flaky and fervent, respectively) descend on the married couples’ low-key celebration and catalyze an orgy. As George puts it, “our lives would change forever.”
After some get-to-know-you chitchat, a standard-issue indictment of bourgeois morality from the thrupple (or “triad,” as they prefer to be called), and Pip’s suggestive karaoke rendition of “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” (emphasis on the comin’), a writhing seven-way breaks out at the stroke of midnight (emphasis on the stroke). Because convincing sex is devilishly difficult to depict onstage, director Rebecca Taichman wisely freezes the action at second base or so while George delivers a witty and surprisingly apt monologue comparing an orgy to the “wild rumpus” section of Where the Wild Things Are.
The rest of the play observes the fallout. The men become confused. Weigert’s tensely funny Jane faces off against her judgmental teenage daughter, Jenna (played with scowling adolescent outrage by Naian González Norvind). George’s arc, meanwhile, is more mysterious and transformative, as she comes to realize that Pip — or at least her idea of Pip — belongs as much to myth as reality. Late in the play, Pip suddenly turns into a bird (played by a real-life white dove), and we learn that George’s memory of the orgy differs from everybody else’s, suggesting that some of what we’ve seen has been dreamed up by the protagonist.
Ruhl’s comic yet earnest mix of contemporary fact and timeless fantasy is matched by Taichman’s buoyant staging and grounded by Tomei’s warm and yearning George. As presented here, polyamory complicates things (think of the logistics!) but also satisfies the human animal’s omnivorous nature and spiritual longing to be part of something bigger. Striving for transcendence, George discovers, to her surprise and ours, that magic and meaning were in the neighborhood all along.
How to Transcend a Happy Marriage
By Sarah Ruhl
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
150 West 65th Street
Through May 7