It's 'safe' programming for a Mardi Gras season, but those who love family dramas will find rewards in Bathsheba Doran's play
The Eternity Playhouse, home of Darlinghurst Theatre Co, is celebrating pride along with the rest of the city, with its Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras co-production of The Mystery of Love and Sex by Bathsheba Doran (who has written for Boardwalk Empire and Masters of Sex). It’s a rare instance of a play, even in a LGBTQIA festival, with a queer woman as its lead, and this is a charming, brilliant, sort of bratty, sort of fucked-up woman to boot – someone you’d want to spend a couple of hours with.
But the play spreads itself farther afield, and Charlotte (Contessa Treffone) is more of a common ground for the other three characters in the play than a protagonist in her own right; her choices spark and propel the narrative, but it isn’t solely her narrative – in the second act, she’s frequently sidelined in favour of her father and her best friend.
Doran wrote the play after becoming a parent, which she says made her reckon with her own sexuality and what it means in the world, so it’s no surprise that she can’t resist Charlotte’s parents, placing them front and centre in the play. If you’re really into family stories, you’ll enjoy this. If you’d rather focus on queer stories, you might be less excited by the work; for a Mardi Gras play, it’s quite conventional with broad appeal, which seems like a missed opportunity to celebrate queerness in theatre and theatre programming.
Charlotte grew up in the American south with her southern belle mother Lucinda (Deborah Galanos) and Jewish ex-New Yorker father Howard (Nicholas Papademetriou). She’s been best friends with Jonny (Thuso Lekwape) since she was nine years old, and he means the world to her; she even abandoned the opportunity to study at an Ivy League school in favour of enrolling at the same college as Jonny.
Now students, cooking for a visiting Lucinda and Howard, their relationship has deepened. They’re “well beyond dating,” Charlotte tells her parents, a touchstone of family and identity for Jonny as much as they are for her, and it’s clear that Charlotte and Jonny still adore each other. But Charlotte is also in love with a woman named Claire, and Jonny, a Baptist virgin, won’t really let himself love anyone.
What follows is a family and relationship drama, charting Charlotte and Jonny’s coming of age into adulthood as well as the growing disharmony between Charlotte’s parents. Secrets are revealed (though they’re pretty predictable) , bonds are tested. Although the play starts so slowly it’s boring (Doran employs tired phrasing and observations at the opening family dinner scenes partly by design – she’s trying to smash our expectations of what a family drama can be, leading to an over-reliance on comfortable tropes before she breaks them down), the play wakes up when Charlotte comes out.
Even though Anthony Skuse is a deft hand at family affairs (his production of cross-generational tearjerker 4000 Miles was full of his trademark compassionate insight), this production feels too artificial and perhaps under-rehearsed to ever allow its audience to be fully absorbed in the story. While Galanos glides through the play with droll humour and Lekwape’s grounded Jonny is irresistibly lovable, there are problems. Poor accent work leads to garbled lines and self-conscious delivery across the board; it’s hard to believe in an emotional confession when you can see the actor working to elongate each vowel or measure each twang. And Emma Vine’s abstract, sloping set (complete with a giant, watchful tree) is beautiful, but the actors seem to struggle keeping their balance. These things are likely to improve as the run continues.
Howard writes detective novels, and Doran invites the audience to investigate her characters: what was behind Charlotte’s traumatic childhood experience? What does Jonny really feel about Howard? What happened to Lucinda and Howard years ago, and why won’t they talk about it? Sometimes the answers are satisfying, but these plot points – along with an attempt to tackle PC culture and how it frames the way people experience stories which feels dated, even though the play is only three years old – are just surface mysteries with generally uncomplicated and unsurprising answers.
Still, Treffone and Lekwape have a lovely shorthand as longtime best friends, casually invading each other’s personal space and making each other laugh. The real power of the play lies there in Charlotte and Jonny’s friendship and the small, carved-out space within the narrative that asks: why is coming out to yourself sometimes harder than coming out to other people? What does it mean to reckon with your identity and lay claim to it? Why is it so hard to take our lives into our own hands?
There are no right answers to these questions, and certainly no simple ones – that’s what makes them perfect for the theatre, and that’s what helps this play transcend its occasional simplicity and predictability to connect with anyone watching.