BLUE HILL — Many, many years ago, a friend assured me that the movie “An Officer and a Gentlemen” would be suitable fare to see with my 11- or 12-year-old son. What followed was an excruciatingly uncomfortable two hours of watching explicit sex scenes with my kid and muttering curses at that friend.
So last weekend when my son and I attended New Surry Theatre’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage,” and it turned out the story involved conversations about and scenes of polyamorous sex, there were a few moments when I questioned whether inviting my now middle-aged son along was a smart idea.
But I got over it because the laughs, clever repartee and genuine emotions elicited and expressed by the characters – two married couples and a “thrupple” (a threesome of lovers) – transcended any discomfort.
There is a line in the play when one of the wives, George, (short for Georgina) wonderfully played by Vanessa Hawkins, exclaims in exasperation, “We turn ourselves into wild animals to make our babies, and then spend the rest of our lives trying to hide our wildness from them,” (or something to that effect) that perfectly sums up what I was feeling, then and now. I didn’t so much mind my child enjoying erotic scenes and conversations, I just didn’t want him to see me enjoying it, too.
That is just one of the many truth bombs this fun and sexy play lobs at us.
I must say, though, that it really would have been an hour and a half of squirming in my seat had the ensemble of NST actors failed to make their characters so likeable and relatable.
As George, the spouse of one of the married couples, Hawkins serves as sort of a moral center of the play. George is definitely intrigued by her friend Jane’s story of a fellow worker who not only hunts her own meat but who also shares her bed with two boyfriends. And while George also is an active participant in the eventual sexual shenanigans and hunting excursion that ensue, she is also a thoughtful observer and commentator mirroring the curiosity, desire, shame and finally acceptance we all might feel in such, uh, interesting circumstances.
George’s soliloquy at the end of the play, as she tries to figure out and explain what it all means, cuts to the emotional bone, and I was surprised to find myself in tears.
As her husband, Paul, Michael McFarland pulls off a tricky feat. He manages to portray a man who is not only intrigued to, but also clearly eager to, experiment with a different sexual dynamic than his 20 or so years of monogamy. Still, he makes it touchingly clear that he loves his wife even while confessing his love for his best friend’s wife Jane and, for that matter, his best friend.
Sally Mills is totally loveable as the slightly ditzy wife and mom, Jane, whose idle gossip at a cocktail party sets the wheels in motion that will drive them all in new polyamorous direction.
Tim Pugliese, who plays Jane’s husband Michael, has always reminded me of Jack Lemon, both physically and in his relaxed, underplayed acting style. Here it works perfectly in his portrayal of a nice guy who finds himself swept up in the currents of change.
As the catalyst of this change, Nina Lee playing Jane’s office temp, Pip, is a delight when she attends the New Year’s Eve party, which the other couples have arranged, with her two boyfriends.
I wish her costuming had been a little less literal, more earth goddess Gaia than girly, but, oh, when she dances to “She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain” in sensuous slow time, I think we all fell a little bit in love with her. As one of her lovers, David, with a vaguely Eastern European accent, Nathaniel Lee is great fun. And since he is actually Nina’s relatively recent husband, all the necessary chemistry was there.
Griffin Shute plays Pip’s other paramour, Freddie. While the other cast members have managed to create distinct characters for themselves, Shute remains a cypher to the point where you forget he’s there until he says something, and even then…well, it’s not memorable. In his dialogue, Freddie mentions being bisexual, but nothing in his manner or his dress suggests the least bit of fun or flair you might expect from someone with strong feminine and masculine sides.
Lori Sitzabee, whose direction is otherwise spot on, has missed an opportunity here by not urging this attractive young actor to channel his inner Christian Siriano (the fashion designer), maybe, and fiercely own his moments in the spotlight.
A wife and mom in real life, Faith Chapman plays Jane’s daughter. She does a fine job channeling her inner outraged teen upon discovering her parents in flagrante with the neighbors.
One of the things I have admired about the New Surry Theatre in the past five decades is its production values. The attention to detail in the sets, costuming, styling, etc.
Therefore, the nearly bare stage, largely black set of this show and rather “meh” styling are disappointing, reminding us throughout that this is a play and not the suburban home of some nice folks looking to spice up their lives a bit.
The COVID circumstances, however, are mitigating. Having missed an entire live season (although they did a valiant job with Zoom), NST is likely strapped for funds and perhaps wanted to keep the number of people involved in the production as minimal as possible for safety reasons. So, the best that can be said here is that they did what they could under the circumstances. (I am sure donations would be greatly appreciated for glamming up the upcoming shows this season.)
For those who are hesitant to attend a show about, well, sex, while the language is descriptive, the actual sex scenes are very tame and I wasn’t once tempted to tell my son to cover his eyes.
And I do have to mention what a thrill it was to be back in a live audience (fully vaccinated) as one of my favorite community theaters launched its 50th season with such a fun, thought-provoking play and production. Huzzah!
“How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” continues at 7 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Oct. 29-30, and Friday-Saturday, Nov. 5-6, at the Blue Hill Town Theater. Matinees will be performed at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 31 and Nov. 7. Tickets must be reserved online by going to newsurrytheatre.org. Proof of vaccination is required at the door as is mask wearing throughout the performance. And, hey, maybe you want to bring the neighbors? For more info, call 200-4720 or email [email protected].