Thursday, March 23, 2017

Off-Broadway Review—Marisa Tomei in “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage”

How to Transcend a Happy Marriage
Written by Sarah Ruhl; directed by Rebecca Taichman
Performances through May 7, 2017
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY

Marisa Tomei in How to Transcend a Happy Marriage (photo: Kyle Froman)
Marisa Tomei has come a long way. Sure, she won the 1992 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for My Cousin Vinny, but her next few movie (and Shakespeare in the Park) appearances made her seem a one-trick pony regurgitating variations on Mona Lisa Vito to diminishing returns. However, she persevered and has turned into one of our best actresses, both onscreen (Oscar nominations for In the Bedroom and The Wrestler) and onstage, where she is giving a delectable and ultimately moving performance in Sarah Ruhl’s new tease of a play, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage.

With their opaque plots, absurdist situations and flowery language, Ruhl’s plays hint at significance but—with the glorious exception of her lone Broadway outing, the focused and superb In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play—always come up short. At least Marriage begins tantalizingly, with a tart exploration of how two happily married, middle-aged couples from New Jersey perceive sexuality and its taboos after falling under the spell of Pip, a polyamorous woman who is blissfully living with (and loving) two men.

Tomei plays George, our narrator and spirit guide, who is most transformed by Pip’s appearance at a New Year’s Eve party; she becomes obsessed with Pip to the point that she even misremembers what happened at the orgy that ended their debaucherous evening. One day, George—short for Georgia, her nickname a sly Ruhl move that further confuses the issues of sexuality and identity—goes bow hunting with Pip to shoot deer (Pip kills and eats her own food, apparently another symptom of polyamory), only to shoot a dog by mistake and end up in jail.

As a character, George may not have true inner logic—another unfortunate Ruhl staple—but, like Mary Louise Parker and Laura Benanti before her as Ruhl heroines, Tomei delivers a sparkling display of comic energy and touching vulnerability, even putting across George’s clunky closing monologue—which heavy-handedly equates the joys of polyamory with music-making—so charmingly and committedly that it nearly sounds meaningful.

But Ruhl falters, as she often does, by confusing absurdism with absurdity. The first act has intelligent, amusing dialogue among the incredulous foursome and Pip and her men. But after the orgy, Ruhl spins her wheels until simply letting the play trail off without a dramatically or psychologically coherent resolution. That a real bird suddenly shows up late in the play is a clear sign of desperation: by concentrating on its sudden appearance, the audience might not notice that leaden dramaturgy has taken over.

Rebecca Taichman’s skillful production corrals an expert cast to play these people as individuals, not freaks or parodies: Lena Hall is perfectly cast as the blue-haired, tattooed and universally alluring Pip, while Robin Wiegert has a lovely and understated presence as George’s close friend Jane. Credit also goes to David Zinn’s stylish set, Susan Hilferty’s spot-on costumes and Peter Kaczorowski’s astute lighting. But head and shoulders above all is Marisa Tomei’s George, guiding us in for a relatively safe landing after an exceedingly bumpy ride.

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