What does it mean to be committed to someone and is that commitment diminished if it’s extended to more than one person? This is the question that playfully courses through Sarah Ruhl’s erudite new play, “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage,” which completed its run at Lincoln Center Theater last month. It begins with two couples: Paul (Omar Metwally) & George (Marisa Tomei) and Jane (Robin Weigert) & Michael (Brian Hutchison). They are old friends and having a routine dinner party when Jane starts talking about a temp at her illegal aid office. Pip (Lena Hall) is a free spirit and currently in a relationship with two men: Freddie (David McElwee) and David (Austin Smith). Jane is fascinated and slightly confounded by this relationship. It turns out she’s not the only one, and they all agree to invite the happy thrupple over for New Year’s Eve.
What begins as a casual inquisition morphs into a grand flirtation, and it’s in this shift where Ruhl’s skills shine. The scene, which takes up the better part of the first act, feels utterly realistic as if each moment is happening for the first time. This is of course the goal of all plays but so rarely achieved. Questions like “where does everyone sleep?” lead into more probing philosophical inquiries about the nature and boundaries of love. Razor sharp quips volley back and forth without ever feeling like they are the creation of the playwright, reminiscent of Tom Stoppard’s lightfooted wit. Rebecca Taichman helms the action (both physical and verbal) with aplomb, and the first act is one of the best-constructed pieces of theater produced this season.
Something fizzles in the second act, partly due to a flourish of awkward magic realism that does more to confound than enrich the atmosphere. Thankfully, this doesn’t overshadow the nuanced portrait of polyamory, which has largely been absent from mainstream theater. Pip and her partners are never painted as caricatures to be laughed at. The laughter in the beginning comes from nerves and curiosity, and the humanity of the characters always shines through.
The title is an elegant summation of these couples’ goals. It’s not that they’re unhappy or unfulfilled but rather seeking to discover all the joy that surrounds their lives. Towards the end of the play, Ruhl compares these relationships to instruments in an orchestra. You can have a solo, a duet, a trio, etc…and as each instrument is added, a new layer of sound is revealed. That sound shifts the context of the ones that have come before it, and together they create a melody that was previously inconceivable. Monogamy is deeply ingrained in our culture as the natural expression of love but most people enter into it as a default rather than a conscious choice. The real magic that Ruhl unearths is what lies beneath that unexamined surface. If you’re brave enough to look, the answer might surprise or even excite you.