The Mystery of Love and Sex
The rather unfortunately titled The Mystery of Love and Sex demystifies neither love nor sex (nor family, friendship, or faith, all of which it invokes in equal measure), though it celebrates all of them pleasantly — if confusedly — enough. Following an Off Broadway run last year, Bathsheba Doran’s family drama is having its West Coast debut, directed by Robert Egan, at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles, and picked up Parenthood’s Mae Whitman to star as it goes bicoastal.
The drama begins with college students Charlotte (Whitman) and Jonny (York Walker) hosting a dinner party for Charlotte’s parents, Southern belle Lucinda (Sharon Lawrence) and New Yorker Howard (David Pittu) in their dorm. The adults gamely accept the students’ defenses of their meager but authentic feast and smile through sophomoric references to the Hitchcock–Truffaut interviews, but when Jonny leaves to pick up some butter for the dry baguette Howard’s been choking down, they drop the pretenses. Are Charlotte and Jonny a couple? They want to know. Because if so, he’s not good enough for her.
Charlotte and Jonny have been best friends for most of their lives, but her parents’ disapproval is rooted in their discomfort with the idea of their white Jewish daughter dating a black Baptist boy. Charlotte argues that she and Jonny love each other, but still doesn’t say they’re a couple, exactly; her father criticizes of her millennial overuse of the word “like” and tells her not to make “an approximation” of everything. After Howard and Lucinda have left, some of the secrets behind Charlotte and Jonny’s approximation of a relationship are revealed when she admits to him that she is attracted to a female classmate, and he says he wants to lose his virginity before graduating — and then refuses to have sex with her.
Egan’s low-key staging is effective and efficient, and it allows the supersized drama room to breathe. Pittu is excellent as Howard, and Lawrence, too, makes the most of her role, though Lucinda becomes less coherently written as the play goes on and, despite Lawrence’s firm grasp of the material, is the least fully realized character at the story’s conclusion. The younger pair of actors both hold their own, but the action pops most when Pittu or Lawrence join them onstage.
The second act picks up with the four main characters five years later, and it begins, again, with a perfectly agreeable shared meal that soon erupts in chaos as long-unaddressed tensions bubble to the surface. The script breathlessly negotiates race, religion, and sexuality, packing them all into a framework of a quartet of parallel identity crises bolstered by substance abuse, childhood trauma, and dashed expectations; Doran engages with relevant themes and introduces interesting (if sometimes contrived) conflict, but moves on to the next thing too quickly to really dig into the issue at hand. For the most part, though, the characters themselves are sincere and appealing enough to want to follow.
“It’s no coincidence I write detective fiction,” Howard cries repeatedly, in moments of triumph wherein he exposes some truth at the heart of the conflict. But his inability to truly see things clearly (“I just like clarity,” is another of his recurring lines), as it is suggested through the prism of his genre literature, is one of Doran’s more elegant devices. Ultimately, The Mystery of Love and Sex doesn’t offer much in the way of sleuthing the lofty subjects it purports to examine, but maybe gives us a few good clues. B–