Remember those earnest sex-ed videos from high school that begged for instant parody? Bathsheba Doran’s The Mystery of Love & Sex–a Lincoln Center Theater premiere directed by Sam Gold (Seminar) and starring the formidable Tony Shalhoub and Diane Lane–is a savvier work than those, but has much more in common with them than it would seem at first sight. Like those straight-faced time relics, Doran’s newest may be fun to sit through, but maybe a little too goofy and lecture-y to really let much take hold, despite the author’s best intentions.
Shalhoub and Lane may be the headliners here, but their sweet-and-sour, married Southern Jewish couple, Howard and Lucinda, are actually the supporting players to the young, sexually-searching pair at the play’s center: their political-hopeful daughter Charlotte (Tribes breakout Gayle Rankin) and introspective, African-American Jonny (Mamoudou Athie), her best friend and neighbor since grammar school. Over the course of five informative years, the latter duo wrestle with their constantly changing, contradictory sexual natures–Jonny is a virgin, often labeled as gay, and not into Charlotte beyond their boundless friendship, and Charlotte loves Jonny completely but believes she is a lesbian and currently in lust with a girl from school. (A girl with a bald head, of course, proving that no matter how inclusive playwrights can be about various sexualities, lesbians are still fair game for cheap jokes.)
Their proclivities begin to affect their home lives over the next half-decade, and Howard and Lucinda begin to confront their own rickety marriage, and the former, a successful detective-fiction novelist, begins to have his safe assumptions questioned by the women in his family, and also by Jonny, now a teacher, who feels that Howard’s writing has more than whiff of cultural insensitivity.
The latter plotline (which, truthfully, should have been the basis of a different play) is one of the reasons The Mystery of Love & Sex never catches fire; with all of the academic rendering of character going on, the two acts often feel more like an Introduction to Sociology class cross-pollinated with one called Sexual Diversity in Society, with a little Race Relations in America hastily tossed in.
But there’s no limit to what gifted actors can do with less-than-bullseye material. Rankin and Athie fare admirably with the most difficult roles, but Shalhoub and Lane pretty much work wonders with theirs. Shalhoub has made a career on his jittery comic energy, which serves him beautifully here, even in a throwaway bit where he tries to finesse out the contents of a salad bowl during a (literal) sit-down dinner on the floor. And, much like Shalhoub’s other work, the actor gives a difficult, creature-of-habit type some real gravitas.
And at last, after nearly 37 years off the NYC boards, Lane makes a welcome return to the stage. Lucinda is quite an underwritten part (her biggest character through-line is that she…smokes), but Lane makes the most of every appearance with graceful good humor, and even sells Lucinda’s swamp-thick Suth-uhn accent in a way that’s not at all insulting. Now if only someone could get that 2012 Goodman Theatre production of Sweet Bird of Youth to New York so folks can see what the still-ravishing Lane is really capable of onstage. B-