There is abundant sex and nudity in Sarah Ruhl’s new play, “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage,” along with some brainy conversation about the ethics of animal slaughter. The setting for this experimental piece (now playing at Lincoln Center Theater) is exceptionally handsome, and under the sure directorial hand of Rebecca Taichman, a tip-top cast headed by Marisa Tomei performs with brio. Nonetheless, the show is both baffling and boring.
There’s a forest outside the picture window of the living room where two married couples — Georgia (who also answers to “George”), played by Marisa Tomei, and husband Paul (Omar Metwally), along with their friends Jane (Robin Weigert) and Michael (Brian Hutchison) — are relaxing over after-dinner drinks. It’s a very handsome, very sophisticated living room, but visually overpowered by the wild forest beyond the window, lush and colorful in David Zinn’s stylized design, and meant to remind us that the wild forest was once the natural habitat of our less civilized selves.
Only minutes before, when the stage at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater was uninhabited, the carcass of a slaughtered animal looking like a hairless deer (or a headless human) dangled from on high. It’s a bloody carcass, meant to remind us that we once fed on the meat of wild animals.
That’s the way things go in this initially provocative but eventually lame play by Ruhl, author of “The Clean House” and “In the Next Room; or, the Vibrator Play,” both Pulitzer Prize finalists. Like other alt-theater plays by the cultish scribe, this new work has a lot on its mind that deserves our attention. Broadly, it’s about animals — hunting animals, killing animals, eating animals, and heeding our own animal urges. But no solid matter emerges from these wink-wink hints at deeper substance.
Director Taichman is extremely hot stuff, having directed several challenging plays, including “The Oldest Boy” (also by Ruhl) and “Indecent,” the Paula Vogel play coming soon to Broadway. Here, she’s working with a sterling cast to demonstrate the mashup of realism and surrealism that identifies Ruhl’s signature style. (Case in point: one character turns into a bird.)
That shape-shifting character is Pip, a beautiful forest sprite played by the honestly enchanting Lena Hall (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”). Pip is a temp working in the same legal-aid office as Jane, who is fascinated by her unworldly beauty — and by her live-in relationship with two men, a mathematician named David (Austin Smith) and a girlish youth named Freddie (David McElwee). Their triangular attachment is not without interest, but surely the topic of adventurous mating rituals was exhausted in the 1970s.
Even more intriguing than her polyamorous life style, Pip “ethically” hunts and slaughters her own meat — after gazing deeply “into its big soulful brown eyes” and asking for forgiveness. (The ritual is said to enhance the hunter’s pleasure of feeding on her vanquished prey.) Only then is she free to consume the animal “in a respectful way.”
Ruhl writes crisp lines of droll dialogue for her jaded urbanites. Here, she indulges her playful wit by letting the wives fantasize about a threesome with another woman. Sounds sexy, but as George points out, with two women in the same bed, “all the talking would be emotionally exhausting.” They then consider the alternative configuration of one women and two men, until Jane reminds George of “all the laundry.”
After some further clever conversation, it’s decided to invite Pip and the boys to New Year’s Eve dinner, which unfortunately isn’t as much fun as anticipated. Pip tells an amusingly earnest account of how watching Masai warriors slaughter a goat inspired her to butcher her own food. George (Tomei, who is never less than endearing, has a great time with the role) calls up a particularly bloody chapter of “The Bacchae.” Weigert’s Jane also has keen flashes of intelligence, but this much-too-plain Jane is more a plot functionary than a full-bodied character in her own right.
As for Pip’s male roomies, they turn out to be complete dullards, with little of significance to contribute beyond the use of their bodies for the New Year’s Eve orgy. Once this discreetly staged scene is out of the way, the men retire to the sidelines and permit George and Pip to bond. By this time, though, it’s obvious that Ruhl has nothing to add to her initial observations about the animal nature we share with the critters we eat.