by Sandi Durell
What’s it all about? Ultimately, in playwright Sarah Ruhl’s world, it’s all about food, love and how we carry it forward for future generations.
A set (by David Zinn) featuring the carcass of a deer hanging center stage surely raises eyebrows. And when immediate conversation between two straight, happily married couples, who are long time friends, begins to center around a temp working in Jane’s office, who only eats fresh meat that she slaughters . . . well, that’s interesting conversation that needs investigation in the world of George (Marisa Tomei) and Paul, her husband (Omar Metwally), and friends Michael (Brian Hutchison) and Jane (Robin Weigert). As the story unfolds further, Pip (the temp in the office – Lena Hall – a/k/a Deborah), is a free spirit, or polyamorous gal living with two guys as the story titillates and raises speculations, conclusions and questions by this foursome about bisexuals, their imaginations taking over. How can this nosey little band of voyeurs learn more? Invite the temp and her men to a New Year’s Eve party at Michael and Jane’s! But getting to that point we’re treated to clever conversations, metaphors and a series of guffaws and quick-witted humor as the couples talk about the book The Ethical Slut, adultery, slitting chicken throats and other bloody matters.
It’s New Year’s Eve and seated or lying around the living room, the two couples are joined by Pip – a free thinking flower child and her mates/lovers Freddie (David McElwee) and David (Austin Smith) as the discussion shifts from vegetarians, to why Pip slaughters and eats her kill, math, Pythagoras and triangles – – and weaves its way into radical honesty. Freddie went to Harvard, but he does nothing other than reclaim garbage for his use so as not to leave any carbon footprints on the earth; David is a thinker, a mathmetician, expounding on the Pythagoras principles and finding somewhat of a soulmate in Michael who has an affinity for the spiritual idea of numbers as a musician and jingle writer.
As the group consumes the laced brownies baked by Freddie, Pip (a singer/dancer) performs a slow sexually rhythmic grinding rendition of “Comin’ Round the Mountain” to the karaoke machine, announcing she’s been taking pole dancing classes that are really liberating . . . the precursor to what erupts into an orgy (my, what staging by director Rebecca Taichman!), an entwining of bodies in varying positions that doesn’t leave much to the imagination, like in Where the Wild Things Are . . .the sinuous lighting by Peter Kaczorowski. Tomei, also as narrator, gives more than a graphic description of who, what, where commenting on the pornographic scene that closes Act I.
So the question we are asked is, do we each have a primitive, uncontrollable desire to do whatever pleases us (if no rules applied) and live a polyamorous existence? If faced with the opportunity to break out on that bare instinctual level, would we? If you’re Jane the answer is no . . . she finds it too uncomfortable, embarrassing and not really who she is. If you’re George, that’s another case. George (it seems that in Australia where her mother was born, females and males can have the same name) uses the experience as a license to enjoy a freedom of self, spirit and adventure she finds quite titillating and provocative as a new primitive self emerges that was just lurking beneath. Lest we forget, the husbands are more than confused by their own behavior.
Was it all because of the brownies? And, what about Jane and Michael’s 16 year old daughter Jenna (Naian Gonzalez Norvind) who comes home unexpectedly early, catching them all in the act or acts, as she takes off in pure horror and embarrassment but not before uttering “You’re all fat. Your flesh has gravity. It’s embarrassing.”
Act II opens in a snowy forest in the wilds of New Jersey to find George and Pip suited up with bows and arrows hunting for deer. However, poor George mistakes a dog for a deer, winding up in jail and the outcast by her neighbors who are picketing their home; cause for Paul and George to hide out and take over Jenna’s room at their friends’ home.
Suddenly, the funny isn’t so funny any longer as each of the couples is confronted with new realities and personal reactions. George seems rather non-plussed, explaining much of it away as she compares differences in various cultures, waxing philosophically. Feelings and instincts now become the major conversation topics in this absurdist existential awakening. And Pip has disappeared! But with the appearance of a white dove on the scene, George is sure that Pip has turned into a bird. Or is it George who has finally flown the coop?
Tomei shines in her effervescent unrestricted performance as George. Lena Hall couldn’t be a better choice as the polyamorous Pip. The cast, en total, is brilliant. Sarah Ruhl, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is full of surprises as she casts her imaginative net.
You’ll have lots to think and talk about when you emerge from How To Transcend a Happy Marriage at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center, with original music by Todd Almond.
Run Time: 2 hours with intermission thru May 7.
Photos by: Kyle Froman