The Mystery of Love and Sex ***
Where Does Friendship End and Love Begin? Or Does It?
By Lauren Yarger
The complexities and dynamics of friendship, love, sex and marriage all get a thorough examination in the latest play from Bathsheba Doran (Kin, TV’s "Boardwalk Empire") in an Off-Broadway production of The Mystery of Love and Sex at New York’s Lincoln Center, starring Tony Shalhoub and Diane Lane.
Lucinda (Lane) and Howard (Shalhoub) visit their daughter, Charlotte (Gayle Rankin), at college and discover that she and her best friend, Jonny (Mamoudou Athie), are moving in together and that their relationship might be headed toward marriage.
Howard isn’t exactly enthusiastic. It’s not because Jonny is black and his daughter is white. It’s not because his daughter is Jewish and Jonny is a Christian. It’s because Howard has never completely trusted Jonny, despite the fact that he and his daughter have been best friends – since they were 9 – the year Charlotte attempted suicide. It’s more about the boy’s character, Howard, says. The bestselling author just can’t help but ask probing questions like his detective character might, like why doesn’t Jonny visit his dying mother, for example.
"If he’s a contender for son-in-law, I will whip him into shape," says Howard in a way that contradicts the kind of relationship one would expect when the young man has been like a member of the family for years.
Meanwhile, those murder mysteries and some of Charlotte’s father’s language bring up some character questions about Howard for Jonny himself. Like why are all of the black characters in the books good dancers or prostitutes and why are there descriptions like "shiny, black skin?"
Behind the scenes, however, Jonny and Charlotte love each other desperately – but not the way you think. They are friends. Best friends, who tell each other everything (well, sort of). Charlotte recently has met a "butch" girl on campus and finds herself attracted despite her best efforts to ignore the feeling. Jonny encourages Charlotte to explore and experiment, while the virgin reiterates his vow to save himself for marriage and "something more".
Jonny refers to his strong Baptist faith repeatedly, but I think in the real world you would be hard pressed to find a denomination that would require abstinence, but be OK with homosexuality or drinking. This is just one of the areas where I felt Doran’s script seemed a bit contrived to propel the plot and gives the impression that she’s delving into areas she doesn’t know from the heart. When Howard indicates that he’d be willing to set aside his faith in favor of his daughter’s happiness, for example, it has the ring of the author trying to make a political statement rather than a realistic progression for the character. His attempts to find her mother’s wedding dress (long ago sold on E-Bay) for Charlotte are a better attempt at bringing home the point of going the extra mile for those we love.
Complicating the relationships is Jonny’s request to interview Howard about his books for his thesis paper. A visit to the family’s home (designed with simplistic genius by Andrew Lieberman – a few props become the various locations as swirls of mottled blue drapes sweep others aside) culminates in real feelings bursting the dam and all of the relationships in danger of being swept away by the current – including Howard’s and Lucinda’s, when she admits she has been seeing someone else.
Later, can the friends be there for each other when Charlotte can’t decide whether to wear a dress or tuxedo pants for her gay marriage or when Jonny breaks off his relationship with a Christian girl when he discovers that he too is gay? Sigh. Why is it that every Christian depicted on a New York stage has to be a Republican or a repressed homosexual?
Director Sam Gold tightly directs the action (making it come alive on that bare set which gets changed by the actors, some simply using a tote bag for props) and helping Shalhoub and Lane create characters who don’t blur with characters for which we remember the actors (Shalhoub was TV’s "Monk" and Lane has been in numerous films including "Unfaithful.")
Lane is very funny as the southern mom, trying to be polite and accepting while fighting a dependence on cigarettes. Shalhoub adeptly navigates serious and comedic elements of Howard’s character to make him likable despite some unlikable traits.
Athie and Rankin are solid in their performances (and naked – the theater suggests this play may not be appropriate for 16 and under) and Bernie Passeltiner has a brief, but very funny moment, as Howard’s father.
The Mystery of Love and Sex plays through April 26 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th St., NYC. Performances are Performances Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Wednesday and Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets $87: http://www.lct.org/shows/the-mystery-of-love-and-sex; (800) 432-7250.
Photo: T. Charles Erickson