How to Transcend a Happy Marriage, by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Adam L. Sussman

Nick Trengove, Louel Senores, and Fenner

Sarah Ruhl’s play, “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” a living room comedy set in an upper-middle-class couple’s living room, opens with a dialogue between two couples: George (a terrific Karen Offereins), her husband, Paul, effectively played by Matt Weimer; Jane: sprightly blonde Hillary Hesse who received a Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle award playing Stevie in Albee’s “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?”, and her husband, Michael (dependable Malcolm Rodgers). The lively and funny dialogue is titillating gossip about a free-spirited long time co-worker of Jane’s, a woman called Pip (or Deborah, or Diana), a superb Fenner, who Jane divulges, slaughters, dresses, and butchers her own meat as needed.  Once this detail was introduced, I half-expected a bloody carcase to be dumped on the set. Happy my expectations were not met as the play continued.  Jane goes on: Pip  is also having a polygamous relationship with two men.  Now, of course the others want to meet them, which they do on New Year’s Eve.  There’s delightful, perennially stoned Freddie, Louel Senores (always a treat), wearing a kind of outdoor hippie outfit, and bland, yet fascinating, straight, but super trendy, bearded, David or (or Daveed) with a suspect accent, Nick Trengove, in tweed, a Burberry scarf, and- was he wearing jodhpurs? The question: should they slaughter an animal for the dinner?  I give a lot of credit to Casting Director, Gabriel A. Ross and Adam Sussman for casting Fenner in this role rather than a stereotype sexpot.

Lanky Fenner as Pip (or Deborah, or Diana), her hair in a spiky, reddish-brown punk style, stalks and slinks panther-like around the set, and drapes herself across the back of the couch.  She wears flowing gold lounging pants and a purple silk sleeveless blouse, accented with a color-matching silk scarf.  They drink, they tease, they play, they indulge in mind-altering munchies.  Twist is that George and Paul’s daughter Jenna (a miscast-unless one considers the possibility of adoption- yet believable, Celeste Kamiya) has gone missing.  They suspect she’s just run way to a friends’ but will return.  She does, walking into a Bacchanalian scene straight out of Fellini’s Satyricon and promptly runs off again.  Pip, living up to the name of her alter-ego, Diana, takes George hunting with bow and arrow, with dire guilt-inducing results and arrest.

Jane (Hilary Hesse) holds egg-laying bird while her husband, Michael (Malcolm Rodgers, left),  Paul (Matt Weimer, second from right) and his wife George (Karen Offereins) try to make sense of what’s going on. Photo by Jay Yamada.

Offereins, as George, narrates, sometimes between scenes, speaking directly to the audience, telegraphing what we are to expect next, or just to relay her opinion.  This works, for the most part, I guess, setting us up so that we won’t be shocked or feel uncomfortable with the couples’, Pip, and her mens’, escalating shenanigans?  However, toward the end of the play, George tells us that what’s going to happen next is so bizarre that nothing will ever be the same.   As Act II unfolded, I felt cheated: There was really nothing that transcended the shock and weirdness of the previous scenes.

All in all, I liked the play. From the playwright, one expects out-of-the box themes, plots, and comedy, even some awesome magical realism: i.e. Is the egg-laying bird Pip?  “Transcend a Happy Marriage”, doesn’t disappoint. The characters are believable and could be like people in your own group; the way friends interrupt and talk over one another in real life.  Still, by meeting Pip and and her male lovers, the “straight” couples, seem to grow into beings who learn to recognize and accept the animalistic desires, within a marriage, for other partners.  It’s okay.  Following the precepts of perfect comedy, one feels happily satisfied with “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage.”

Paul (Matt Weimer) looks on lasciviously as Pip (Fenner, center) performs a pole dance around Jane (Hilary Hesse). Photo by Jay Yamada.

At Custom Made Theatre, extended through February 16th.  533 Sutter Street, Near Powell, San Francisco.  Cable Car,  Muni,  Go to: info@custommade.org. 415-798- 2682 for tickets and information.