It’s complicated. Bathsheba Doran’s latest work, “The Mystery of Love and Sex”, manages to touch the love bases from friendship to family, other sex, same sex, and no sex, and do it with such wit and grace that it feels like a problem solved. Directed by Stella Powell-Jones, this sympathetic exploration of a seemingly ordinary family and a childhood friend navigating the minefields of life and change resonates on multiple levels. If we haven’t been there or done that, we know someone who has.
Spanning five years from the pretend adulthood of college to the real adulthood of responsibilities and consequences, the play opens on the floor of Charlotte’s (Shayna Blass) efficiency apartment. Her parents, Howard (Jeff Still) and Lucinda (Emily Townley) do their best at sitting “Indian style” next to the makeshift table and eating dressing-less salad and butter-less bread (“It’s Bohemian!” chirps Lucinda, a few times too often) until best childhood friend Jonny (Xavuer Evans) leaves to buy butter.
His exit provides a natural opening for these strenuously hip parents to inquire into the state of the young people’s relationship. Charlotte and Jonny don’t even know. Best buds and neighbors since they were nine, it seems as though they really ought to be lovers now. But they aren’t. She’s a nice white girl raised Jewish, he’s a nice black boy raised Baptist. Her father is a successful New York mystery writer; his father has been MIA since he was born. She’s been sexually active (in vague ways and numbers); he’s a virgin. And now she finds herself attracted to a perfectly awful woman while he is absolutely, positively (how dare she suggest it?) in no way gay. A match made in heaven.
Meanwhile, as time goes by and out of sight, Howard and Lucinda’s marriage is slowly crumbling.
One of the strengths of this show is its ability to shift points of view. The performances are so uniformly strong that, depending upon the scene, we can easily see the world from the eyes of whichever character is momentarily central.
Ms. Blass’s Charlotte is utterly familiar – the anxious, idealistic, assertive product of multiple Women’s Studies classes – confused about who or what she really is or what she wants. A brief nude attempt to seduce Jonny, thinking it would be for their own good, goes sadly awry and her in-born insecurities re-surface.
Mr. Evans imbues Jonny with sweetness, decency, and a mildly slumping lack of confidence that spills over into a razor-honed awareness of anything that could possibly be considered “racist.” His confrontation with Howard, who always prided himself on treating Jonny fairly and lovingly, leads to Howard’s outraged defense and explanations that shift the light. (“You called him ‘son.’ You never called ME ‘son’!”)
Howard’s pugnacious personality is tempered with affection and aggrieved humor. He’s the guy who can say anything and it’s okay. And he’s funny. The only time it’s not okay is in the revelation that Jonny’s final term paper, an analysis of Howard’s mystery stories, passive-aggressively catalogues the many examples of “racism,” “sexism” and every other “ism” that can belittle Howard’s work. The result is serious.
Lucinda, a Georgia Peach variety of Southern belle, has probably the best lines of the play, and Ms. Townley tosses them off with acute timing. She’s a smoker who’s trying to quit and a wife who’s soon to be an “ex.” Her forthright navigation of these strange waters puts her in the “wish she were my best friend” category. My only quibble is with the accent, which sounded tried but not always true.
Asta Hostetter’s costumes are perfection – subtly changing as the characters change, and age and character specific without upstaging anyone.
James Kronzer’s scene design employs a strong thrust stage, a configuration that demands some careful directorial decisions. There are two basic sets: the “bohemian” college apartment with bed and floor table in one room and Howard and Lucinda’s comfortable living room in their upscale brick manse. With four characters on a thrust stage, someone’s back is always going to be turned, but fortunately the delivery and flow are strong enough to minimize any lapses.
The “mystery” in “The Mystery of Love & Sex” emerges in the second half of the play, five years after the first. Layered conflicts, diversions, and resolutions may sometimes feel like we’re watching an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ construction, but superb handling keeps it on its rails to a conclusion that is unexpected, but satisfying. Clearly, the paths we think we’re on don’t always lead where we think they’re going.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
WANT TO GO?
What: “The Mystery of Love & Sex”
Where: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va.
Playing through May 8
Contact: (703) 820-9771 or visit signature-theatre.org