The Mystery of Love & Sex

Theater, Drama
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

The Mystery of Love & Sex: Theater review by David Cote

It has been written by many a self-help author and even crooned by John Mayer: Love is a verb. Easy to say, harder to do. That paralyzing gulf between feeling and acting is one of the enigmas gently held up to the light in Bathsheba Doran’s wise and exquisitely crafted The Mystery of Love & Sex, a group portrait of four souls grappling with the vagaries of mutating desire. We in the West may be loping slowly toward a more liberated age of gender fluidity and sexual freedom, but that doesn’t make the course of love run any smoother.

Charlotte (Gayle Rankin) and Jonny (Mamoudou Athie) have been friends since childhood, neighbors in an unspecified Southern exurb whose differences weirdly seem to complete each other. He is African-American, droll but shy and devoutly Baptist; she is a secular Jew, voluble and impetuous, hurtling toward lesbianism. These best friends attend college together and drift sheepishly into a platonic quasi-affair. She suspects Jonny is closeted, but he insists he’s saving himself for marriage. They dance awkwardly. Naturally, they fall in love; what sort of love is unclear.

Despite my twee précis, Doran is not after a millennial rom-com with adorkable bi-curiosity and postracial frisson sprinkled to taste. She broadens her canvas to include older, if no wiser, adults: Charlotte’s parents, Howard (Tony Shalhoub) and Lucinda (Diane Lane). Just as Doran sketches her younger characters with the right amount of fuzzy instability, she draws the supposed authority figures with deceptively confident, crisp strokes. A successful writer of serial detective fiction, Howard is a pompous hard-ass, but he knows it and has a redeeming mother-hen streak when it comes to his little girl. Lucinda’s maternal instincts, meanwhile, are tempered by her own free-spirited restlessness, expressed by halfhearted attempts to quit smoking (with cigarettes replaced by pot and cocktails). As the younger couple drifts apart on parallel but distant paths, the older one fractures too. Shalhoub and Lane are such friskily lovable stage creatures—playing two people who have been “performing” their marriage for years—the inevitable split still comes as a shock.

There’s a pulsing, warm sense of lives lived in Doran’s script, which unfolds over five years and organically touches on several potent themes, fully humanized: filial betrayal, homophobia, white-liberal microaggression and, above all, forgiveness. These characters are flesh: tangible, fallible and superbly rounded. For all its writing strength, though, Mystery might have lapsed into preciousness were it not for Sam Gold’s cool but coiled staging. He and Doran know that when it comes to conundrums of the heart, solutions are not singular.—David Cote

Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (see Off Broadway). By Bathsheba Doran. Directed by Sam Gold. With Tony Shalhoub, Diane Lane, Mamoudou Athie, Gayle Rankin. Running time: 2hrs 20mins. One intermission.

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote



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