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A CurtainUp Review
The Mystery of Love and Sex
True to her title, Doran reminds us how serpentine, and often at odds with each other, the paths of the heart and the libido can be. Without pretending to fully understand, she charts the halting steps her characters take as they stumble through and around sexual relationships real and unrealized. But she can only hint at why they do what they do and feel what they feel. It's a conundrum. And it's humanity, in all its imperfect, contradictory, “illogical” (to quote Star Trek's Spock) glory.
Aside from a cameo by Bernie Passeltiner, Doran's characters number four. At center, to the extent there is a center, is Charlotte (Gayle Rankin). She's the most consistently passionate (about life in general and love as well) of the group and the most difficult to decipher. A white Jewish child of the South in her early twenties, she lives with Jonny (Mamoudou Athie), a black student of the same age. They've been emotionally intimate since childhood. If you ask her, they're a couple; ask him and they're best friends. He's a virgin, which status Charlotte doggedly but unsuccessfully tries to change.
After a slightly rocky dinner with her parents, Charlotte tells Jonny about a girl at school on whom she has a crush. Then she comes on to Jonny, going so far as to strip completely and offer herself to him. He's not having any. What seems like a jarring 180 shift is perhaps a failed tactic or a defense mechanism. Whatever. It's a mystery after all.
Charlotte goes from one female lover to another, as does Jonny, except his relationships are never consummated. The pair remains close friends but lives separately. Any chance of romantic rapprochement becomes less and less likely, which is not to say their relationship is free of sexual tension.
Meanwhile Charlotte's parents, Howard (Tony Shalhoub) and Lucinda (the incandescent Diane Lane) come more to the forefront of Andrew Lieberman's simple, eminently functional set. (Who knew you could do so much with only tables and chairs?) Initially a backdrop for Charlotte and Jonny, we start to see the fissures in Lucinda's and Howard's marriage and their differences in outlook.
Howard, a stereotypical New York Jew and, as he often tells anyone who'll listen, writer of detective mysteries, reverses his earlier opposition to Jonny and tries to get him back (to the extent, there is a back) with Charlotte. Lucinda radiates warmth and good will, as she struggles with giving up cigarettes.
Director Sam Gold not only elicits excellent performances from his actors. Their portrayals are all of a piece; their relationships ring with truth because they are on the same wavelength, albeit with different waves. The tone is breezy but purposeful, seriously weighing in on heavy subjects but with a light touch.
Doran's characters are likable; you root for all of them. This is a comedy in the classic sense: it has a happy ending.
There's no cascade of laughter, but there's plenty of humor, driven by the fears and foibles of the flesh-and-blood inhabitants of the stage. Shalhoub, crotchety and critical, with sly cynicism and impeccable body language, is the funniest. Rankin, prone to occasional histrionics as she illuminates Charlotte's overwrought emotions, can be grating but in an amusing sort of way. Lane, an evolving free spirit, and Athie, who matures from boy to man before our very eyes, are pitch-perfect.
But the author is the star. Mystery. . . flows smoothly and effortlessly over a five year period. Its well-defined principals change, grow, make new mistakes, correct old ones. Yet no point of view is espoused. The story is told; the puzzle is ours to piece together, or not.
If the play's world view is ultimately sunnier than most, so what? The Mystery of Love and Sex doesn't purport to have profound answers or even ask probing questions. It's an observation of the human species laid bare, simple and complex at the same time.
Following links to other Basheba Doran plays we've reviewed:
Great Expectations, a Dicken adaptation
Living Room in Africa