KPFA theatre critic Richard Wolinsky reviews “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” by Sarah Ruhl, at Custom Made Theatre through Feb. 16, 2020.
Text of review (audio is slightly different)
As we grow and get older, we notice that our friendships have their own sets of rules, areas that can be discussed and areas that are out of bounds.
When they don’t, when lines are crossed, particularly sexual lines, then those relationships must deal with the changes or fall apart completely. Playwright Sarah Ruhl explores the nature of these kinds of relationships in her 2017 play, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage, which can be seen at Custom Made Theatre in San Francsico through February 16th.
Two straight couples in their early forties, Jane and Michael, and George and Paul, are enjoying an evening together, when Jane mentions a temp at her workplace, a woman named Pip, who is involved in a polyamorous relationship with two men. At first, the jokes and assumptions fly fast. Do the men have sex with each other, does their relationship revolve around Pip, and why does Pip kill goats for food in her spare time?, but eventually it’s suggested that Jane invite the threesome for dinner to see what they’re like.
The dinner party, and its aftermath form the core of the play as the four key characters wrestle with their own insecurities, their own fears, and the changing nature of their relationships.
Sarah Ruhl, first and foremost, is a master at dialogue. The opening dinner party, and then the second, is never less than brilliant. Satirizing modern life and attitudes, sometimes laughing with, and sometimes laughing at the characters, the wit and wisdom never stops. It’s a brilliant tour de force.
The actress Fenner is perfectly cast as the mysterious and pretentious Pip, and among the rest of the cast Hillary Hesse and Karen Offereins are standouts as Jane and George, respectively — and Malcolm Rodgers as Michael plays a mean guitar. All handle Ruhls dialogue with aplomb.
How To Transcend A Happy Marriage, though, has a second act problem. Because this is Sarah Ruhl, and because the cast is engaging, it’s not a fatal one. Still, the first act ends in a brilliant crescendo, and Ruhl never quite picks up the pieces. After a wonderful camping scene to open act two, the play briefly devolves into what might be fantasy, and then adds another character, sadly miscast in this production, which detracts from the matters at hand. Ultimately, though, she navigates us through choppy waters toward a conclusion that makes emotional sense, and the play does come to a satisfying end.
How to Transcend a Happy Marriage by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Adam L. Sussman, plays at Custom Made Theatre in San Francisco through February 16th. For more infroamtion, you can go to Custommade.org. I’m Richard Wolinsky on Bay Area theatre for KPFA.