When I sat down this week with Omar Metwally, who portrays Paul in Sarah Ruhl’s How To Transcend a Happy Marriage, I asked him how he responded to the play at first reading. “I thought it was both beautiful and disturbing,” he replied. “I responded to the nuance and subtlety of the storytelling. And I thought that the questions Sarah is asking are urgent to this moment.”
Urgent to the age of Trump? “Politics come and go. This play deals with the human experience that underlies whatever the political moment is.” He added: “We see and hear about Trump 24 hours a day. But the psychic and spiritual condition of the people is what informs the political situation.”
Metwally, who grew up in California and studied history at UC/Berkeley and acting at the American Conservatory Theater (ACT), in San Francisco, made it clear that politics has its place. “I’m not suggesting that art is a substitute for voting or civil disobedience.” He went on: “But I do think it's necessary. Sarah’s play is exploring how we try to broaden and expand our definition and experience of love, and that feels very urgent to me in this moment.”
In Transcend, Marisa Tomei plays George, the wife of Metwally’s character. “We’d worked together briefly once before,” said Metwally, who received a Tony nomination in 2004 for Sixteen Wounded and an Obie award last year for Guards at the Taj. The previous Tomei/Metwally pairing took place in the 2009 movie Amsterdam, directed by Ivo van Hove. Metwally’s mother is Dutch, so the project was a homecoming of sorts.
Metwally began working professionally as soon as he finished his training at ACT. “I learned at lot as part of the Campo Santo group in San Francisco. They’re based on an ensemble concept and are devoted to great new writing.”
New work is at the heart of Metwally’s acting career. “It’s enjoyable to make something for the first time,” he said. “Theater is an art form of immediacy. It takes place in real time and its strength in is speaking to the moment.”
As for the urgent new Ruhl play, Metwally said, “There have been a lot of changes during the preview process.” Further: “You have to be on your toes. The play has unexpected tonal shifts, which require a lightness of touch.” He added: “Sarah is a wonderful writer – her words are very speakable. For an actor, that’s crucial.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.