I don’t know how many Oscar-winning actresses are willing to take a deep dive into new work on stage, especially when there isn’t even the prospect of a Tony nomination in the offing. But here is Marisa Tomei, thrice nominated, with one win (as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny, 1992) giving her all in Sarah Ruhl’s trippy How To Transcend A Happy Marriage, which opened Monday night at Lincoln Center Theater’s off-Broadway Mitzi E. Newhouse.
The enticement isn’t difficult to discern. Ruhl has one of the liveliest intellects of any playwright today. Her plays (In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play, Stage Kiss, Passion Play A Cycle, etc.) thrum with ideas and careen between realism and non-realism in a way that I think only finds a parallel in the best work of Christopher Durang. As with Durang, when everything aligns, the work provokes a kind of euphoria (think of Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike). And when everything doesn’t? What’s the sound of ideas spinning off into the ether?
Tomei plays George (for Georgia), who’s comfortably married to Paul (Omar Metwally), dining at the well-appointed home of their best friends Jane (Robin Weigert) and Michael (Brian Hutchison), all in comfortable middle age, very boojie, when the subject of the new temp at Jane’s work comes up. Pip is exceptionally beautiful and she’s polyamorous, Jane reports, the word tripping off her tongue as though it is far more common than I’ve noticed. She lives with two men who love her – apparently all the time, as lately she has been coming to work exhausted.
Intrigued, the couples decide to invite Pip and her polymours to dinner on New Year’s Eve. Pip is played by the extravagantly sexy and limber Lena Hall (Tony winner for Hedwig And The Angry Inch), who recently converted from vegetarianism to slaughterer of meat she can eat. Her agreeably engaging lovers are gentle Freddie (David McElwee) and enthusiastic David (that’s dah-veed), a mathematician avid about Pythagoras, especially where triangles are concerned.
Not unexpectedly, Pip, Freddie and David upend their hosts’ notions of normalcy, mainly regarding love and sex. The unexpected appearance of Jane and Michael’s teenage daughter at a moment of grown-up abandon brings down the first act curtain.
George turns out to be the true seeker in the group, and most of Act II is taken up with the places – oh, the places – Pip takes her, including, at one point, jail, the aftermath of a deer hunt gone all wrong. Until this point, Ruhl has been content juxtaposing complacency and adventure, and, more disturbingly, the usual ideas of youth versus maturity. (It is the child who visits sexual shame upon the adults, a startling twist on convention.) Soon, those ideas begin to lose focus for us; they become less engaging, more annoying.
It’s possible that the usually astute director Rebecca Taichman (her magnificent production of Indecent is soon to open on Broadway) has ceded editorial control over the goings on, for How To Transcend A Happy Marriage reads better than it plays in this production – the fine work of fine actors notwithstanding. The takeaway is more head-scratching than transcendent, as evanescent as Pip herself proves to be.