How to Transcend a Happy Marriage
Three's company, but seven's a party in Sarah Ruhl's latest play.
Two: It's the loneliest number since the number one, so why not try three or four? That's a question raised repeatedly by Sarah Ruhl's How to Transcend a Happy Marriage, now making its world premiere at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. It's a play about polyamory: the practice of being in multiple sexual and romantic relationships with the knowledge and consent of all involved parties. Ruhl approaches the subject with her usual wit and intelligence, subtly questioning our societal assumptions around love and commitment even as she makes us feel as comfortable as honored guests in her home.
It proves to be the right strategy to hook a skeptical audience: 84 years after Noël Coward first tantalized Broadway audiences with the possibility of a functioning three-way relationship in Design for Living, polyandry is still a fairly taboo subject for most people. Like a patient mother teaching a child to ride a bike, Ruhl guides us until we feel safe enough for her to release the handlebars.
She begins with a familiar tableau for anyone who has seen a show at the Mitzi Newhouse in the past decade: Married couple Jane (Robin Weigert) and Michael (Brian Hutchison) are hosting their old friends, married couple George (Marisa Tomei) and Paul (Omar Metwally), for a night of wine and food. These four well-to-do middle-aged Americans sit around a bountiful cheese tray drinking champagne out of stemless glasses that feel pretentious in their austerity. Jane talks about Pip (Lena Hall), the curious new temp at her law office: Not only is she in a relationship with two men (Austin Smith and David McElwee), but she also stalks and slaughters all her own meat. Do they alternate nights in bed? Is meat more delicious when you've killed it yourself? Do they all sleep together?!? Rapt with curiosity about this polyamorous huntress, they determine to invite her and her lovers to a New Year's Eve party, perhaps in the unspoken hope that wild things will happen at midnight.
That party scene (same setup as the first plus three) is a little like a postmodern symposium, with the characters sounding off about love and knowledge. David (Smith sporting an appropriately unplaceable accent) is a mathematician engaged in a complex study of (what else?) triangles. Clearly a fan of Michel Foucault, he rejects nationality and monogamy as "social constructs" that prevent us from living our full potential. The other man in the triad, Freddie (a fay McElwee) doesn't much believe in work, finding all the material he needs in others' trash. "I went to Harvard," he informs the group. There's a whiff of coastal decadence about the whole thing, but through wine, music, and conversation, thrilling ideas come out to play.
Director Rebecca Taichman impressively grounds Ruhl's prodigious intellect in an ever-present dramatic tension. Momentary glances, playful feet, and hungry grins dot the stage as the characters engage in their heady discourse. It feels simultaneously sexy and smart.
At the center of it all is Hall, whose frosted turquoise hair and animalistic determination give her the aura of a unicorn. She sings in a rock growl while gyrating along to a randy karaoke rendition of "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain." Everyone is smitten. "Was it her beauty or the capaciousness of her desire," Paul speculates about this enchanting woman, sounding very much like a commercial for Chanel No. 5.
All nervous energy, Tomei plays a very different type of woman as the high-strung George. Her reticence and excitement make her well suited to narrate (Ruhl's characters step out of the story during transitions to address the audience, giving us yet another opportunity to reflect).
Naian González Norvind gives a standout performance as Jenna, Jane and Michael's teenage daughter. During one very awkward scene, Jenna arrives home early and witnesses something she cannot unsee. She doesn't take it well, shouting, fretting, and generally sucking the energy of the room like a fun vacuum — that is to say, a teenager.
Set designer David Zinn fashions their boudoir in the rich, deep reds and browns of a Giuseppe Recco still life. It looks even more handsome under Peter Kaczorowski's perfect mood lighting, which is achieved through an awesomely overstuffed lighting plot. Costume designer Susan Hilferty give us a strong sense of character: Freddie's fragile knit cardigan and intricately wrapped scarf say a thousand words before he ever does.
Unfortunately, the archetypal nature of our central triad (overeducated hipster men with a magical unicorn woman) somewhat masks the truth that polyamorous groupings are made of all types, not just the avant-garde. Certainly, Ruhl seems to suggest that there is an inverse relationship between how picky one is with one's food and how liberal one is with one's sexuality.
Still, a combination of thoughtful performances and smart direction ensure that we never feel bored or alienated. Ruhl's gentle prodding makes us stop and reconsider not just what our relationships could be, but what they already are.