Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

How to Transcend a Happy Marriage
Custom Made Theatre Co.
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Karen Offereins, Nick Trengove, and Fenner
Photo by Jay Yamada
Sarah Ruhl's How to Transcend a Happy Marriage, now playing at Custom Made Theatre Co., wears its wildness on its sleeve. Exploring the line between primal instinct and acculturation, it slaps its audience in the face, imploring us to wake up and accept—if not embrace—the animal inside us. In the opening scene, two best friend couples, Jane (Hilary Hesse) and Michael (Malcolm Rogers) and George (Karen Offereins) and Paul (Matt Weimer), have finished dinner and Jane is telling the others of the new temp in her office, Pip (Fenner), a woman in a polyamorous relationship with two men. Pip is a former vegan who now eats meat, but only if she slaughters (and preferably hunts) it herself. Paul finds this all a little precious. "You don't walk around naked just because you don't know how to knit," he says. Curious about both her diet and her sex life, the foursome decide to invite the throuple (a term the polyamorous collective—one of whom is a mathematician studying Pythagoras—hate, preferring "triad") for a New Year's Eve dinner party.

As you might expect (especially when the program lists an intimacy choreographer), things get a little out of hand. Or into hand, as it turns out—and as teenage daughter Jenna (Celeste Kamiya) discovers when she comes home early from her party. For when the clock strikes twelve, the New Year's custom of a midnight kiss goes far beyond mere lip-to-lip contact.

Ruhl is eminently skilled at creating quirky yet believable characters, and her dialogue has a smooth, flowing quality to it, even if director Adam L. Sussman rushes the pace a bit, especially in the early going. But the targets of her satire—P.C. thinking, the clash between desire and decorum—are a little too easy to hit. And while her lines often elicited hearty laughter from the opening night crowd, like a toy arrow with a rubber tip, they fail to leave any lasting mark.

Things get even wilder in act two, when Pip takes George along on a hunting trip that goes terribly, horribly wrong, and sends the play skittering off in a strange new, almost hallucinatory direction that was vaguely hinted at in act one when David (Nick Trengove), the mathematician triad member, quoted Pythagoras: "All things change—but nothing dies."

Despite the somewhat chaotic nature of the text—it's spiked with brief diversions into pop philosophy, architectural theory, and other intellectual pursuits—the cast, for the most part, keep us grounded. Once they fall into step with Ruhl's rhythms, they help us maintain our interest in what's happening to them, even if they never truly jell as a cast. Though Fenner as Pip has an appealing, loose attitude on stage and an easy physicality, they have a tendency to lose their focus the more broadly they play Pip. As their two partners, Nick Trengrove and Louel Senores (as Freddie) bring a lovely, if somewhat arch, sensibility to their roles. Senores plays Freddie as a gentle stoner type, with soft eyes and laid-back to the point of couchlock movement.

Sadly, though, the cast has let down intimacy choreography Maya Herbsman (who did brilliant work in Aurora Theatre Company's Bull in a China Shop this season) by not always fully committing to their intimacy. At one point the characters attempt to quantify their love for each other through kisses both friendly and passionate. But merely lengthening the duration of a kiss and increasing the lip-to-lip pressure does not passion make, and the result feels far from the truth those interactions would need to communicate playwright Ruhl's intentions.

For a play about the wildness inside us all, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage lacks the organic sense of purpose it needs to be more than a satirical look at modern mores and relationships among a privileged class.

How to Transcend a Happy Marriage runs through February 9, 2020, at Custom Made Theatre Co., 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with matinees Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets range from $31.50-$35, and are available at