Typically, Sarah Ruhl’s plays sound like your smartest friend stoned. They unfurl in tendrils of dialogue that are both organic and perseverant, fantastic and philosophical. Because the plots are not especially logical, the characters often seem freaked out by the situations they face and the new thoughts they are hatching. In The Oldest Boy, a play about parental attachment, the three-year-old son of an ordinary American woman may be the incarnation of the next Dalai Lama. In Stage Kiss, a hilarious backstager, bad actors in an even worse revival find themselves revived by it. The invention of the vibrator electrifies a doctor’s wife in In the Next Room. Always a woman is the central character; Ruhl’s men are relatively unformed, which may be deliberate and even, from her point of view, naturalistic. Naturalism, though, is hardly a top Ruhl concern. The untrammeled play of the imagination as a means of normalizing unfamiliar ideas seems to be her priority, and never has she been as free with her storytelling as in How to Transcend a Happy Marriage, which opened tonight in a Lincoln Center Theater production starring a sensationally likable Marisa Tomei. It is Ruhl’s stonedest work yet.
I don’t mean to harsh anyone’s mellow, but that’s not totally a compliment. The demilitarized zone between fanciful and inane is one that’s better left unbreached. In How to Transcend, Ruhl begins with a sitcom premise that is already halfway over the line: In a CB2 living room complete with prop hors d’oeuvre, Jane, a legal aid lawyer, tells her husband and their best married friends about a young temp in her office who (a) kills her own meat and (b) practices polyamory. The two things are related, Ruhl suggests, by the way they encourage us to extend our narrow ideas of love past their usual boundaries, whether numerical or anthropocentric. At first, Jane finds the story of Pip, as the temp is called though her real name is much plainer, merely interesting, a chewy bit of gossip to share before dinner, but the husbands are conventionally hyper-titillated; they smell in polyamory the possibility of an orgy. And Tomei’s character — George, short for Georgia — is obsessed. (“Do they have sex all at the same time?” she asks, overeagerly. “Or one, and then the other?”) Something is missing in her life, so much so that after eating vegan hash brownies when Pip is eventually invited to dinner with her two male partners, she and the play flip out.
What Ruhl next shows us — and especially what we’re shown when some psychedelic mushroom tea makes an appearance in the second act — cannot be trusted; perhaps it’s just the view from behind George’s collapsing ego walls. But Pip and David and Freddie, the polyamorists, are presented to the audience, I hope deliberately, as ridiculous caricatures. Pip, with streaks of blue and feathers in her hair, wearing short cut-offs on New Year’s Eve, is a free-spirit cliché; she performs a raunchy karaoke version of “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” as if she were a pole-dancer. David (pronounced Daveed) is a vaguely European poseur spouting unlikely claptrap about Pythagoras, and Freddie is, well, not much of anything except a pretentious stick insect. (Latin, he tells us, is “too beautiful for this world.”) In reality, the late-fortysomething quartet — a lawyer, an architect, a composer, and, yes, a Latin teacher — would see through this ludicrous and condescending twentysomething trio in a split second. But in the play, even sensible Jane (Robin Weigert of Big Little Lies) eventually succumbs to the wildness released in her by Pip’s decorticating presence. Yes, there’s an orgy.
Or is there? Though Tomei beautifully pulls off her confused arias of overprivilege and its inchoate longings — she’s the kind of woman whose great embarrassments in life include never having learned Greek — Ruhl does not intend for us to take the story literally. Neither does the production, directed by frequent Ruhl interpreter Rebecca Taichman. In fact, Taichman appears to have encouraged the entire cast, but especially Pip (Lena Hall) and the men, to play it large and play it for laughs, which are mostly not forthcoming. Nor is David Zinn’s scenery very subtle, tellingly placing that CB2 living room in front of a cyclorama of gorgeous wildflowers, not as an either-or proposition but as a both-and. Likewise, in Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting design, the flowers glow, or possibly glower.
Unfortunately this surrealism, however conscious it is as an aesthetic choice to support the theme of personality disassociation, undermines the play at every turn. How are we supposed to take seriously its invitations to consider ethical food practices and polyamory when the proponents of those ideas are so absurd and condescending? Nor do we feel like joining the older group in their investigation of these ideas, when they are painted as so neurotic (the women) and shallow (the men). Eventually Ruhl brings a teenage child into the story to complicate the discussion: “It’s no fair, no fair,” shouts her mother. “You have to become an animal in order to have children and then you have a child and you have to disguise your animal nature forever after!” But by then one’s tolerance for abstract insights, untethered to believable dramatic action, has withered.
The method, it turns out, is not as loosey-goosey as it seems. What appear to be discursions and sidetracks in the storytelling are actually (you eventually realize) just further twists of the vise of meaning. The play is littered with symbols Ruhl works very hard to whip into concordance: birds, eggs, children, Latin, meat, music. Even poor Pythagoras is dragged into the polyamory theme; it’s those damned triangles. Would that the characters were as rich, but Tomei and Weigert are the only actors who have enough to work with. Even then, their success is one-step-forward, two-steps-back, as each new incursion of whimsy undoes their progress. If you think of it as a daydream or an anthology of oddities, How to Transcend is potentially fascinating. But as a play — even the carefully artificial kind that Ruhl, almost uniquely, sometimes pull off — it’s surprisingly dry and importunate. The proportion of ideas to people is out of whack. As with polyamory, it seems to me, the problem isn’t having too much feeling to share; it’s having too little.
How to Transcend a Happy Marriage is at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater through May 7.