Woody Weingarten

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Funny orgy and karaoke antics highlight Sarah Ruhl drama

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★☆

Jane (Hilary Hesse) holds egg-laying bird while her husband, Michael (Malcolm Rodgers, left), and a second couple, 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.

“How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” contains the funniest orgy sequence I’ve ever seen.

Even though most of it’s behind a couch.

The Sarah Ruhl play at the CustomMade Theatre in San Francisco also features the funniest karaoke antics I’ve witnessed.

But the prolific playwright’s comic-drama-fantasy digs much deeper than either of those moments: In less than two hours she explores themes of wedded bliss vs. boredom, friendship vs. love, parenting vs. alienation, animalism vs. humanism, mythology vs. reality.

Director Adam L. Sussman makes it all work almost seamlessly, even when thespians break character and speak to the audience.

Fenner, a one-name actor, is a helluva scene stealer despite not being on stage that long.

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

She’s hilarious, with an overlay of sexiness, as Pip — a wild woman with a penchant for killing her own food and an apparently insatiable desire for living outside society’s restrictive box of heterosexual monogamy.

Karen Offereins is also outstanding as George, a housefrau-mom-godmother who’s bewildered by changes wrought by a New Year’s Eve bacchanal in New Jersey and some wilderness sips of psychedelic mushroom tea.

The remainder of the eight-person cast is also worthy of kudos.

The play virtually explodes when Pip and her two live-in male lovers proselytize a polyamorous lifestyle at a party where the “triad” is expected to explain the “rules” by which they’re living.

And as the bourgeois habits of two middle-aged couples rapidly peel away, aided and abetted by hash brownies, they slip into a carnal-knowledge experiment of their own.

Contrasts are rife.

Pip’s “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” and a human pole dance with a weighty monologue about Pythagorean triangles, for example.

Earthy dialogue with mystical transcendence, for another.

And edgy, meaningful-in-context one-liners, a stock in trade for Ruhl, are plentiful. Such as, “Polyamory takes all the fun out of adultery.” Or, “Other cultures have children; we have little customers.”

The 46-year-old playwright, whose work has been produced on Broadway, off-Broadway, all across the United States and has been translated into a dozen languages, is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and MacArthur Fellowship recipient.

I’d previously enjoyed her “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday,” “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” and “The Oldest Boy.” But I found “Happy Marriage” — which lists among its production team Maya Herbsman as an “intimacy choreographer” — funnier and even more thought-provoking.

As they might have said in the Old Country, however, it ain’t perfect.

It’s too talky in parts, too other-worldly in others. And some of its ultra-sharp-witted banter left me yearning for more karaoke and its grounded double entendres.

Besides, the mostly serious second act occasionally gets a bit murky.

That, however, didn’t seem to bother the youthful audience (vastly less gray-haired than most in the city). Most in the small theater laughed loudly at both the slapstick and clever word play, and audibly sighed at the more cerebral, pensive and somber moments.

My wife and I reacted similarly, even though we’re admittedly mired in our provincial vision of two’s a couple, four’s a crowd.

“How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” will run at the CustomMade Theatre, 533 Sutter St. (at Powell), San Francisco, through Feb. 16. Night performances, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $35 to $50. Information: 415-798-2682 or www.custommade.org.

Contact Woody Weingarten at voodee@sbcglobal.net or check out his blog at www.vitalitypress.com/

 

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