When a visitor arrives at a suburban family home in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Teorema (1968), he disturbs the psychic landscape of the household. Sent by a bellicose god or a gleeful devil, the stranger is an agent of change who shatters their routines and inhibitions. He’s an antidote to the ennui that permeates their comfortable, staid lives.
But there are consequences, not all of them good, as they accept or acquiesce to their newfound states of liberation.
With How to Transcend a Happy Marriage, the playwright Sarah Ruhl offers a less astringent variation on the same theme. Her stranger, Pip (Fenner), is involved in a polyamorous thruple, or “triad” as the three of them like to call it. In her version of the fable, Ruhl rearranges the players so that Pip and her lovers are at the periphery of the story. Because Pip’s not the protagonist, the character retains the right amount of mystery. The narrator, however, is a much less exotic and yet a surprisingly unreliable narrator.
George (Karen Offereins) is a wife and mother who doesn’t seem bored, unhappy, or entirely dissatisfied with her life. This is a distinct and radical departure from a theatrical genre that coalesced in plays like Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler. His protagonists, and their dramatic progeny, made decisions from their straitened circumstances. Trapped with men they could no longer love, or never had in the first place, these women could only empower themselves by leaving their traditional roles in society. And, as often as not, with tragic endings.
But George — short for Georgia — loves Paul (Matt Weimer) and their two children. There aren’t any obvious signs of dysfunction or marital strife. The faultline in Transcend opens up casually at a dinner party. George and Paul are with Jane (Hilary Hesse) and Michael (Malcolm Rodgers), their best friends. After they’ve all had a few glasses of wine, Jane mentions Pip for the first time. Pip’s a new temp at her office and she’s gleaned fascinating tidbits about her life. What intrigues Jane also intrigues everyone else.
For starters, Pip slaughters a goat once a year so that she can eat meat ethically. Pip notes, unironically, that the meat of one dead goat will last through the winter. As a chronicler of contemporary mores, Ruhl gets to have her cake (or goat in this case) and eat it too. The four main characters are educated, employed, and firmly planted in the middle class (money problems only come up once in passing). Conversationally, they can run with an idea like what it would mean to kill their own meat. But they also distance themselves from Pip by joking about her unconventionality.
Jane’s tastiest morsel of office gossip though is that Pip’s in a committed relationship with two men. Everyone in the room begins to riff on the titillating idea. What would it be like? Would they prefer two men or two women? Wouldn’t it be exhausting? George is so curious about Pip and her paramours that she suggests inviting them over as guests for a New Year’s Eve party. Ruhl wants to disrupt these bourgeois couples with a riot of bohemian energies.
Because George is motivated by a benign sense of curiosity, and not by existential angst, regret, or some childhood trauma, Ruhl allows for a less devastating set of outcomes. The playwright isn’t interested in punishing her ordinary cast of characters for wanting to explore their libidos or for questioning the entrenched idea of monogamy. Ruhl finishes the thought that Paul Mazursky begins in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969). Even with the sexual revolution as the backdrop, Mazursky couldn’t satisfy his characters when they cheated on each other or swapped spouses. Whereas Ruhl posits a new set of guidelines, an expansive, inclusive take on love in the 21st century.
What keeps the story from becoming a silly sexual farce is a motif involving animal sacrifice. The symbolism recurs throughout the play without standing out or, more crucially, outside of the narrative. Ruhl uses it to suggest a painful loss. In the shift from a traditional nuclear family toward open marriage, we’d lose something familiar and dear to us. We’d lose our old ideas about what love and commitment look like. But in the meantime, before that new age of enlightenment dawns, there’s a cure for marriages — like George and Paul’s and Jane and Michael’s — that have lost their spark. They all have something to gain from a healthy dose of sexual exploration.
How to Transcend a Happy Marriage, through Feb. 9 at The Custom Made Theatre Co., 533 Sutter St. $20-$45; 415-798-2682, custommade.org