By: David Sheward
Bathesheba Doran attempts to recreate the messiness of modern life and relations with her awkwardly titled, sometimes maddening, sometimes endearing play The Mystery of Love & Sex at Lincoln Center’s Off-Broadway Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre. At times it feels as if she’s created a cross-section of American society with four characters representing our divergent strains of race, class, religion, and sexuality and then mixing them up just to see what happens. She also indulges in over-the-top melodrama and plotting here and there with more than a little gratuitous nudity, but there are poignant observations and heartbreaking moments.
The arc of the play follows the up-and-down relationship of Caucasian Charlotte and African-American Jonny, childhood friends who may or may not become lovers when they live together in college. We open with the roommates hosting a bohemian dinner for Charlotte’s parents, Howard, a former New Yorker and secular Jew, and Lucinda, a modern Southern belle and lapsed Catholic. There are the predictable jokes about vegetarian vs. meat-inclusive diets, regional prejudices, youthful idealism, and middle-aged cynicism, but there are also unexpected and complex connections between this quartet. From this tense meal to an unconventional wedding, the swerving and overlapping paths the characters take are charted with humor and fascinating detail over five years. Each pair falls in and out of love and friendship, the younger generation clashes with the older, and rifts are torn open and later healed.
Fortunately, the quirks and twists outweigh the clichés. A tearful confession of a gay affair could have morphed into a scene from an Afterschool Special, but Doran adds the humanizing, hilarious fact that one of the lovers is obsessed with vintage Aquaman comic books. There are similarly endearing vignettes involving a wedding dress sold and found on Ebay, a tire swing, and the lack of dancing ability. It’s that kind of outlandish yet incredibly specific grace note that draws us in.
In addition, Sam Gold’s precise direction and the weighty performances give the potentially soapy clashes heft and zaniness. Tony Shalhoub artfully modulates the prickly pear edginess he employed as the multi-phobic TV sleuth Monk to create a lovable but grouchy Howard (ironically, Howard is the author of a successful series of detective novels.) Diane Lane combines just the right amounts of mint julep and salt for a vibrant Lucinda. Gayle Rankin who was a tenderly forlorn Fraulein Kost in the most recent Cabaret revival, brings the same waifish yet streetsmart quality to her Charlotte. Mamoudou Athie expresses Jonny’s conflicts about his race, sexuality and religion without resorting to overheated emoting, a quality the playwright indulges in only occasionally in this largely satisfying work.
March 2-April 26. Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, 150 W. 65th St., NYC. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Running time: two hours and 20 mins. including intermission; $87. (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com.