Bathsheba Doran's THE MYSTERY OF LOVE AND SEX is both a comedy of manners and a twenty-first century coming out play. The central characters are two intensely close childhood friends, Charlotte (Gayle Rankin) and Jonny (Mamoudou Athe). These two are an odd couple: Charlotte is the voluble daughter of Howard (Tony Shaloub), a Jewish author of best-selling detective stories, and Luncinda (Diane Lane), his Gentile Southern belle wife; Jonny is a buttoned-up, devout Black Baptist raised by a very religious single mother. Since he was nine, Charlotte's home has been a second home for Jonny. When we first meet them, Charlotte and Jonny are hosting a simple dinner for her parents in her college dorm room. While Lucinda is all charm, Howard not so subtly asserts his dominance. He is also concerned about Charlotte's friendship with Jonny turning into marriage. We soon see that things are not what they seem. When Charlotte tries not very subtly to turn their relationship into one that is sexual and romantic, Jonny holds on to his virginity, claiming that he's waiting for the right Christian girl. Soon both Charlotte and Jonny discover that as much as they love each other as friends, their desires are for their own sex. Neither finds coming out easy. Charlotte gives up her first girl friend because"This is not who I am." Jonny's first sexual affair is with a man he doesn't even like. Their own friendship is strained by Charlotte's resentment of Jonny's inability to be honest with her. The ruptures in their relationship form the basic action of the play. We also see Charlotte's parents' love and support of their daughter as their own marriage falls apart.
At the heart of Doran's play is the issue of the relationship/conflict between love and sex. There is not doubt of the intense love Charlotte and Jonny feel for each other, but can that survive without a sexual component? Can they love their sexual partners with the same intensity that they love each other, Can Howard and Lucinda's marriage survive without sexual satisfaction? At some point in the play, each of our young protagonists rips off all her/his clothes and offers his naked body to the other. What does that nakedness mean? In Charlotte's case it is offering her body for sex as a means of turning her friendship into something else, but it is also a lie as her sexual desire goes in another direction. Offering her body to Jonny is a way of avoiding what her body is telling her. When Jonny later strips before Charlotte, he is trying to communicate that he is no longer hiding anything from her, but does a naked body really denote honesty? Does it denote anything beyond the body itself? THE MYSTERY OF LOVE AND SEX is a comedy of manners for our time that raises a number of pertinent questions. I do have some reservations. Do kids now still have such problems coming out, particularly with liberal parents like Charlotte's? Why is it that Charlotte and Jonny seem to be so detached from their peer group who would probably offer them support? Nonetheless this is a very well crafted play, both serious and funny.
Sam Gold has given the play a minimalist but highly effective production and the cast couldn't be better. Rankin and Athe are fine young actors. Jonny is a young man who hides his emotions, but Athe allows us to see the turbulence and fear underneath. He's a magnetic actor. Tony Shaloub is, as always magnificent, capturing Howard's charm and his tendency to bully while remaining sympathetic. Diane Lane is vivacious.
Immensely enjoyable. The play also seemed timely as some backward states try to enshrine prejudice against gay people, especially gay couples.
THE MYSTERY OF LOVE AND SEX. Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center Theater. April 1, 2015.