Usually yielding a level of societal chagrin, the realm of theater has the historical reputation for displacing or shifting the commonplace paradigms of its era. During the English Renaissance, the period when Shakespeare entered theater, the monarchy disliked these new mass gatherings centered around plays in large part because of their countercultural nature. This centuries-long theatrical tendency to question normativity and let the unknown live and breathe continues with Custom Made Theatre Co.’s subversive play “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage.”
During one evening dinner, multiple marriages are forever changed when two couples and a “throuple” encounter the outrageous proposition of polyamory. With a satirical flourish, everyone is abruptly sucked into a carnal craze, indulging in pleasure and desire as if these urges constituted the pinnacle of their relationships. The consequences are less than desirable: Marriages become distant, families are reorganized and sexuality is rampant. Sarah Ruhl, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony Award-nominated playwright, evades uninspired morals or lessons about love in this play, preferring a demonstration that pushes scarce, unpredictable questions into the light.
It’s hard to pinpoint which direction “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” embarks on, though, because it travels through numerous ideologies. The play stops frequently to posit countless conflicting notions and give audiences frustratingly open-ended answers, with dialogue such as “it’s like our whole culture — a garbage in a garbage.” Perhaps the easiest conceptual narrative to follow is the religious commentary flitting throughout. Collections of these short, pithy remarks about world religions, Noah’s Ark, God and love, among other themes, merely institute surface-level diving. These brief commentaries miss the beauty underneath this flood of abstractions — what could be a constructive investigation into the relationship between religion and marriage instead becomes a series of loose jabs hitting nothing.
Although in some cases jumping from thought to thought can benefit the depth of the play, “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” struggles to interweave everything together to create cohesive exposition. The play boasts its capacity to include a diverse set of conversations through hundreds of pointed one-liners. But in attempting to include such a wide range of content, “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” equalizes the significance of each topic to the extent that no one in the audience is unable to ascertain what destination the play wishes to travel to.
Though its script may be lacking in eloquence, the cast of “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” provides the play with a roller coaster ride of hilarity and absurdity. Because of the fluid, synergized energy of the cast, the script drifts smoothly from character to character, balancing relational dynamism and fluxes of humor. The vulgarity of it all might be flabbergasting for some instead of entertaining, but after witnessing the cacophony of the characters’ rendition of “She’ll be Coming ‘Round the Mountain,” the least one can say is that the play was memorable.
“How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” surpasses having any meaningful interpretation, divorcing itself from audiences. Its narrow perception of marriage as purely sexual hinders its attempt to search for other purposes of marriage beyond love as a “duet,” bearing an unfruitful discourse about polyamory. Although the cast is talented and it should be celebrated that these topics can be explored within the environment of theater, the play could use an insightful rewrite.
Cameron Opartkiettikul covers theater. Contact him at [email protected].