Thursday, April 9, 2015

“The Mystery of Love and Sex”- A look at the intimacy of incompatibility

By Judd Hollander

The path to true love does not always run smooth. You always hurt the one you love. Time-worn clichés perhaps, but still quite accurate in Bathsheba Doran's penetrating The Mystery of Love and Sex, now at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.

College roommates Charlotte (Gayle Rankin) and Jonny (Mamoudou Athie) seem a perfect match. Best friends since childhood, the two have an easygoing and comfortable chemistry, appearing to all observers, including Charlotte's parents Lucinda (Diane Lane) and Howard (Tony Shalhoub), that they've moved to a new and more romantic stage in their relationship.

However while Charlotte and Jonny may be intimate in some ways, in others they're miles apart. Jonny is a devout Baptist and a virgin, saving himself for marriage, while Charlotte is so in love with Jonny she strips her clothes off one night, begging him to take her right then and there. Though as soon becomes clear, just about all of Charlotte and Jonny's afore-mentioned certainties are untrue. Both of them carrying secrets having to do with sexual preferences, pairings and partners and what they see as acceptable and what is not.

It’s a situation Jonny refuses to admit. This refusal making him so closed off, he seems totally disengaged from everyone. An attitude Howard immediately picks up on. Charlotte on the other hand so desperately tries to deny her own feelings, she channels them in completely inappropriate directions, ones which can only lead to disaster. The only truism between Charlotte and Jonny is they are indeed soul mates and best friends who should be able to tell each other everything. Yet their attempts to deny their own personal proclivities threaten to destroy them both.

A further complication is Howard. At first he’s not at all sure Jonny is right for his daughter, but when he comes to realize how much Charlotte loves him, Howard tries to convince Jonny that he and Charlotte are meant to be together. Though unbeknownst to Howard, his own relationship with Diane may not be as rosy as it appears and thus he may not be the best  judge of Charlotte and Jonny's situation. There's also the possibility that Howard, a New York Jew and a successful writer of detective fiction, may object to Jonny simply because he's black.

For a rather intimate tale, Doran has created a sweeping canvas for her story. One spanning five years, numerous relationships and locations, as well as matters including religion, race, parental responsibility and homophobia. The latter issues coming into play when Jonny accuses Howard of perpetuating too many stereotypes in his writings; as well asking the older man if what he wrote could have been responsible for a childhood incident involving Charlotte.

A major strength of the story is that neither Charlotte nor Jonny are fully deserving of the audience's sympathy, the tale showing first one, then the other to be seemingly insensitive, uncaring or just plain obnoxious, and certainly not best friend material. Yet both characters, especially Charlotte are almost immediately so interesting, one becomes quite willing to see where the narrative will take them.

Rankin turns in a powerhouse performance as Charlotte. A girl continually wearing her emotions on her sleeve, while seeing her love for Jonny as the solution to everything. Though her best laid plans often backfire. Such as when Jonny gets involved with another girl and Charlotte gets roaring drunk and proceeds to publicly humiliate him.

Athie is good as Jonny, the character coming off as a mostly standoffish cipher; at least until his own personal issues are brought to light. Jonny's attempts to keep everything hidden eventually earning Charlotte wrath, and leading to his own personal meltdown.

Shalhoub works nicely as the deceptively quiet and very methodical Howard. Rather off-putting when first seen, the character turns out to be quite complex and intelligent; having a strength that comes from experience while going the extra mile to ensure his daughter's happiness. Though his attempts in that direction are sometimes skewed by his not knowing all the facts before diving in.

Lane is fine as Lucinda, though the character is the least defined of the four. A free sprit, she finds herself more and more constrained in Howard too-structured world, not to mention his perfunctory attitude towards sex. Yet like Charlotte and Jonny, Lucinda and Howard share a complex bond, one neither can completely break.

Sam Gold's direction is strong, quickly showing the chemistry between Charlotte and Jonny as well as nicely choreographing the various confrontational scenes between the characters. Costumes by Kaye Voyce work well, especially the outfit Charlotte wears in the final scene.

Involving and ultimately uplifting, The Mystery of Love and Sex points out the importance of being true to oneself. Not a bad message to impart and Doran has presented a very good vehicle in which to do so.

Also in the cast is Bernie Passeltiner.

Featuring  Diane Lane (Lucinda), Tony Shalhoub (Howard), Gayle Rankin (Charlotte), Mamoudou Athie (Jonny), Bernie Passeltiner (Howard's Father).

The Mystery of Love and Sex
by  Bathsheba Doran
Sets: Andrew Lieberman
Costumes: Kaye Voyce
Lighting: Jane Cox
Original Music and Sound: Daniel Kluger
Stage Manager: Janet Takami
Assistant Stage Manager: Karen Evanouskas
Casting: Daniel Swee
Director of Marketing: Linda Mason Ross
General Press Agent: Philip Rinaldi
General Manager: Jessica Niebanck
Production Manager: Paul Smithyman
Directed by Sam Gold

Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse
150 West 65th Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission
Closes: April 26, 2015

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