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Fantastic voyage through marriage

by Jim Gladstone

Paul (Matt Weimer) demonstrates pistachios for Pip (Fenner) in Custom Made Theatre Co.'s "How To Transcend a Happy Marriage." Photo: Jay Yamada
Paul (Matt Weimer) demonstrates pistachios for Pip (Fenner) in Custom Made Theatre Co.'s "How To Transcend a Happy Marriage." Photo: Jay Yamada  

The last time local actors Hilary Hesse and Matt Weimer appeared on stage together, they offered electric, angsty thrills as Stevie and Martin, the upper-class couple in "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?," Edward Albee's lacerating take on love, adultery and marital malaise.

Now, in "How To Transcend a Happy Marriage," at the Custom Made Theatre in a run that's been extended to Feb. 16, they're upper-middle-class Jane and Paul, again pushing the envelope of monogamous marriage, along with their friends George for Georgia (Karen Offereins) and Michael (Malcolm Rodgers). And, in one of the stranger coincidences on the Bay Area boards in recent seasons, goat slaughter is again among the topics their characters touch upon in living-room chitchat.

It seems no coincidence, though, that Custom Made has programmed both of these shows. Where Albee, a gay man born in the 1920s, penned his straight couple as embittered animals in a barbed wire cage, the more generous-spirited playwright Sarah Ruhl, a heterosexual daughter of the 1970s, gives us cheerful seekers in a bouncy house. The two plays offer radically different visions of monogamy, parent-child relationships and adult friendship; having them both produced here in relatively short order speaks to a keen meta-dramaturgy at work. There's a sensitivity to rhyme and rhythm across Custom Made's productions, as well as within each of them.

Unlike "The Goat" or Ang Lee's 1997 cinematic swing "The Ice Storm," Ruhl's romp doesn't tie non-monogamy to the bitter dissolution of conventional relationships. Its title is frank: This is a comedy of transcendence, in which characters move above and beyond traditional definitions of happy marriage into something less clearly defined but even happier.

In the opening scene of Act I, Jane tells her husband and friends about a temp in her office, Pip (played by mononymed Fenner), who has a three-way live-in relationship with David (Nick Trengrove) and Freddie (Louel Senores). Across the board, despite a shared smidge of nervousness, the couples' response to this information is genuine curiosity (are Pip and her gentlemen all bisexual? Do they play two-at-a-time, or all together?) and zero knee-jerk revulsion. Soon enough, the couples invite this titillating triad over to Jane and Paul's bland suburban home for a New Year's Eve party.

The visitors energize the stage with zany Marx Brothers flair. Fenner has a sinuous balletic physicality that manages to be simultaneously lighthearted and innuendo-laden. Trengrove and Senores have each devised singularly quirky speaking styles (the former's is an indefinable accent, the latter's an unpredictably halting deadpan) with which they land their lines with perfect comic timing. As a pheromonal fog rolls in, there's lots of adventuresome faux-coy petting among both friends and strangers. Pip performs a bonkers karaoke rendition of "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain," hash brownies are served, and lickety-squat, the whole gang's on the floor, an orgiastic magnificent seven.

Director Adam Sussman interweaves the sex and the yuks with a deft hand, engrossing theatergoers in the party's antic atmosphere and rising temperature so effectively that most won't bother to wonder why on earth a nymphlike office temp would bring her quirky stoner beaux to spend NYE with two straightlaced suburban couples they've never met before. Alas, I did, but after scratching my logical head for a moment, I threw my inner-cynic to the wind and myself back into Ruhl's lubed-up and largely frictionless optimism. Yes, the first act ends with Jane and Paul's teenage daughter (Celeste Kamiya) walking in on a tableau of heels and hands ecstatically sprouting from behind the living room couch; but even this withering adolescent judgment falls away before the ultimate happy ending.

Elements of surrealism infuse the play's second act, in which the couples process feelings of guilt and danger that have been stirred up by their frolic. But eventually, all four leads realize that their perspectives have been permanently and positively shifted. This all transpires with an unreal velocity: Marriages not only survive, but thrive; nonmonogamy becomes virtue more than vice; love doesn't come in pairs, it deserves to be shared. A fantasy? Perhaps. But as any therapist would say, there's real value in fantasizing. In addition to letting us tap ass, it lets us tap the power of positive thinking.

Bay Area theatergoers who have recently enjoyed immersing themselves in Caryl Churchill's work now have an opportunity to explore Ruhl's plays in similar depth. Beyond "How To Transcend," the playwright's newest work, "Becky Nurse of Salem," closed this past weekend at Berkeley Rep; her "Stage Kiss" is running through Feb. 16 at San Jose Stage; and San Francisco Playhouse mounts "The Clean House" in May. It's a joy when our local theater scene comes together in polymorphous play.

How To Transcend a Happy Marriage, through Feb. 16. Custom Made Theatre Co., 533 Sutter St., SF. Tickets ($20-$45): (415) 798-2682, www.custommade.org

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