What looks alarmingly like a dead, skinned goat hangs upside down from a hook at the start of Sarah Ruhl’s “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage.” A willowy woman enters, seems to whisper something to the head of the goat, then tenderly unhooks it and carries it away.
From that disturbing, almost mystical scene, we are immediately plunged into a tastefully-appointed modern living room in New Jersey (designed by David Zinn with voluptuous jungle flowers outside.) There, two lively, attractive middle-aged couples are gossiping about the new temp working in one of their offices. It seems she, called Pip, is in a polyamorous threesome with two men. At least as unnerving to the well-educated, ostensibly happy friends is that Pip slaughters her own meat—but never without asking the creature for forgiveness. Perhaps the dead goat forgave her.
I admit I’ve have been slow to warm to the prolific Ruhl, twice a Pulitzer finalist and a MacArthur fellow. Until her enchanting recent works, “Stage Kiss” and “The Oldest Boy,” her plays tended to wear me down with self-conscious whimsy and — in the case of her Broadway hit “In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play” — struck me as a catchy title with an afterthought for a story.
But this new play is a subversive enchantment. It is part absurd domestic serio-comedy, part erotic magic realism, unflinching about taboos and about questioning that, just maybe, monogamy isn’t enough.
Marisa Tomei is spikey and complicated as the wife and mother nicknamed George, who dresses in long silky skirts (acutely observed costumes by Susan Hilferty) and occasionally takes the function of narrator. Like the three other friends (Robin Weigert, Omar Metwally and Brian Hutchison, all lovely), she had to give up a professional goal to help support the family.
Curious and maybe a bit restless, they expand their New Year’s Eve party by three — Pip (Lena Hall, aptly the wild thing) and her devoted weird guys (Austin Smith as the international traveler/math theorist, and David McElwee as the feline Harvard grad whose serious goal is “to do nothing”). They bring “vegan hash brownies” and Pip suggests karaoke.
Directed without sensationalism but with intrepid good humor by Rebecca Taichman (“Indecent”), the inevitable bacchanalian reveries ensue. But so does heady talk about Pythagorean triangles, the immortality of a Bach minuet, grief, architecture and why women are expected to lose their “animal nature” after childbirth.
But why, why, does the production have to bring a non-domesticated animal, a live dove, onto the stage for the final scene? Everything pales next to the discomfort of a live creature. For a play that toys with ideals of “radical honesty,” either everything else has to be real or, better yet, the bird should be fake.