Some playwrights stake out theatrical territory: Sam Shepard’s father/son explorations, August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle.
Others, like the prolific Sarah Ruhl, are completely unpredictable in their choice of subjects and themes. Think of the enormous differences among “The Clean House,” “The Vibrator Play,” “Peter Pan,” “Dear Elizabeth” and, most recently, “Becky Nurse.” There’s also 2017’s entertaining, and at the same time not entirely satisfying, comedy “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage.”
In Custom Made Theatre Co.’s latest local production of a Ruhl play, the subject is nothing less than love — or, more specifically, polyamory that takes on existential, even mythical, attributes.
In the first scene, two married couples sip wine and — intrigued and even titillated by Jane’s casual mention of a temp in her office who lives with two male lovers — discuss the various aspects of such a nontraditional arrangement.
The increasingly animated discussion expands. The temp, Pip, is also said to eat only animals that she personally hunts and slaughters.
The foursome — Jane, played by Hilary Hesse, and her husband, Paul (Matt Weimer); Michael (Malcolm Rodgers) and his wife, George, who is the play’s occasional narrator (Karen Offereins) — agree to invite Pip to a New Year’s Eve dinner. To impress her, Paul volunteers to slaughter a duck for the main course.
What at first seems like a comedy of manners, or a satire of new-age pretensions, becomes bizarre when Pip — tall, rangy, sexily androgynous and mysterious, as played by Fenner — shows up with her two devotees in tow: pretentious David (Nick Trengove), obsessed with the Pythagorean Theorem, and shy Harvard graduate Freddie (Louel Senores).
By the end of the (fairly predictable) first act, after much talk of the appeal of triads and “radical honesty,” and the eating of pot brownies — and a hilariously obscene karaoke version of “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain (When She Comes)” — “Transcend” seems more like a farce than anything else.
By Act 2, Ruhl’s themes are more apparent: We are all basically animals — deer, birds, dogs, all figure into the narrative — and, perhaps with the help of mind-altering drugs, we can, well, transcend our old habits.
But there’s lots of other stuff obscuring the play’s focus. (To mention just one: an underdeveloped mother/daughter issue.)
Which is not to say that the acting by the top-notch Custom Made cast, under Adam L. Sussman’s masterful direction, doesn’t make for a thoroughly enjoyable evening of theater.
How to Transcend a Happy Marriage
Where: Custom Made Theatre, 533 Sutter St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; extended through Feb. 16
Tickets: $35 to $50
Another recent play — actually two one-acts on a single bill — also has a playfully faux-instructional title. The world premiere “Ways to Leave a Body” is at Cutting Ball Theater, which, like Custom Made, is a small downtown company.
And like “How to Transcend,” it boasts a strong cast. It’s quite a bit stronger than the two scripts linked under the show’s umbrella title.
The plays — Alexa Derman’s perplexingly titled “Restoration Master Reset” and Roxie Perkins’ just plain perplexing “True Romance” — are both angsty explorations of mind/body disconnect in young womanhood.
In “Restoration,” directed by Allie Moss, Winona (Eliza Boivin) has been seriously sick for the past seven years with Lyme disease. She’s cared for by her lesbian lover (a sympathetic Kaitlyn Ortega) and a nurse-practitioner (a quasi-cartoony Renee Rogoff). But the short play, a sort of meditation on illness, doesn’t go anywhere, and, in its effort to provide humor and also to examine one young woman’s struggle to understand who she actually is within her tortured body, never achieves the poetic profundity it’s seeking.
Perkins’ “True Romance” is more stylistically experimental, a hallmark of Cutting Ball since its inception, but utterly confusing.
At the outset, a teenage girl (the talented Boivin again) is interrupted from a series of silent, passionate embraces with a boy (Adam Niemann) by a loud buzzer that somehow catapults her into a chair with her back to the audience; a disembodied, amplified voice (Rogoff) threatens and chastises her.
It turns out the girl is a saucy, bad-ass type — she drinks, does drugs, is a daredevil, flirts with and relentlessly teases the boy, who’s apparently not her boyfriend (the program calls him “Lover”; she’s “Body”) but rather her high school tutor — and is repeatedly punished for her behavior by the buzzer and the stern voiceover.
What exactly is the source of the girl’s erratic behavior? Why is the boy so nuts about her, given the way she toys with his affections? Above all, to whom does the controlling exterior voice belong: Her mother? Her sister? Her future self? Her own inner self? It’s anybody’s guess.
Under director Maya Herbsman, the pas de deux of sorts is at first staged solely physically — the couple’s dialogue is projected as recorded voiceovers — and the actors are well up to the task.
So it’s surprising when at a certain point they seem to lip-synch the words and then eventually speak. But why?
This puzzle of a play remains frustratingly elusive to the end.
Ways to Leave a Body
Where: Cutting Ball Theater, 277 Taylor St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Wednedsays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 9
Tickets: $44 to $55