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© Kyle Froman
© Kyle Froman

Theater: Marisa Tomei Puzzles Over Polyamorous Perversity in New Jersey

Picture of Carey Purcell
Updated: 17 May 2017
Are we just animals? Or are we a different species altogether, one compromised by our animal instincts? That’s one of the questions Sarah Ruhl raises in her ambitious drawing-room comedy How to Transcend a Happy Marriage.

As directed by Rebecca Taichman for Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, the play is a subversive examination of monogamy and lust that blends realism and magical realism.

Two long-married New Jersey couples – George (Marisa Tomei) and Paul (Omar Metwally), Jane (Robin Weigert) and Michael (Brian Hutchison) – are first seen enjoying a leisurely evening of food and drink and conversation about polyamory. Jane animatedly describes Pip, a temp at her office who lives with two male lovers and eats only meat she hunted and killed herself. The idea of Pip fascinates the quartet as they repeatedly project their own desires onto her. They decide to invite her and her partners to dinner on New Year’s Eve.

Marisa Tomei as George
Marisa Tomei as George | © Kyle Froman

Played by Lena Hall, a Tony-winner for her stunning performance in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Pip brims with sensuality. She meets and exceeds the two couples’ expectations, whether she’s cuddling with either or both of her lovers, describing the epiphany that led her to move from vegetarianism to the ethical slaughtering of animals, or singing a sexually charged rendition of “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” to her rapt audience.

Pip and her lovers bring a novel charge to the hyper-articulate quartet’s overscheduled lives. Even finding a date they could invite Pip and her lovers to dinner was a challenge given their professional commitments and their children’s extracurricular activities. These are the kind of friends who ask each other, “Have you been reading The Bacchae again?” and apologetically mention they used recycled paper towels when cleaning their kitchens.

One of them declares, “Polyamory takes all the fun out of adultery.” They analyze it according to gender stereotypes: if there are two women, there would be too much talking, and if there were two men, there would be too much laundry.

None of them saw what was coming when they sat down to an evening with Pip, Freddie (David McElwee), and David (pronounced Dah-veed and played by Austin Smith). Out of place in this tastefuily appointed living room, the three happily defy conventions, whether declaring they don’t “believe in nationality” or extolling the unexplored virtues of Pythagoras.

When vegan hash brownies take their effect, the evening unsurprisingly turns into an ecstatic orgy. Catching her parents in flagrante delicto, Jane and Michael’s 16-year-old daughter (Naian González Norvind) leaves to stay with a friend. The first act is straightforward. It’s during the second act that the narrative lines begin to blur and the intention of the play is called into question.

Following a disastrous hunting trip, Pip and George find themselves in prison. George unleashes a monologue of maternal frustration, describing herself as a spigot or a drain, depending on what her husband and children need from her. She registers the exhaustion of living in an America where children aren’t valued and mothers aren’t helped, though people rejoice in the health and safety of England’s Prince William and Princess Charlotte. Tomei becomes increasingly moving as George’s darker emotions surface.

Tomei, Metwally, Weigert, and Hutchison