Lincoln Center Theater
At the Mitzi E. Newhouse
Andre Bishop: Producing Artistic Director
The Mystery of Love & Sex
(Show Web Page)
By Bathsheba Doran
Mamoudou Athie, Diane Lane, Bernie Passeltiner
Gayle Rankin, Tony Shalhoub
Directed by Sam Gold
Sets: Andrew Lieberman
Costumes: Kaye Voyce
Lighting: Jane Cox
Original Music and Sound: Daniel Kluger
Stage Manager: Janet Takami
Casting: Daniel Swee
Exec. Dir., Development & Planning: Hattie K. Jutagir
Director of Marketing: Linda Mason Ross
General Press Agent: Philip Rinaldi
Managing Director: Adam Siegel
General Manager: Jessica Niebanck
Production Manager: Paul Smithyman
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
March 4, 2015
Bathsheba Doran’s new play, The Mystery of Love & Sex, at the Mitzi Newhouse, is entertaining, but overstretched. This is one play that could have been ninety minutes, no intermission, and it would have flowed with more drama and direction. Four actors, and a “cameo” walk-on, of a fifth, are at a dinner in student housing, in the contemporary rural South. Charlotte (Gayle Rankin) is hosting her parents, Lucinda (Diane Lane) and Howard (Tony Shalhoub). Also at the table is Charlotte’s best friend and soon-to-be roommate, Jonny (Mamoudou Athie). Bernie Passeltiner, who has that “cameo” late in the play, will remain a mystery, not to ruin the play’s biggest laugh line. The scenic design, by Andrew Lieberman, is tasteful and stark, including the improvised dinner table that brings Mr. Shalhoub slowly to his knees, as the family and friend sit, as if in Japan, on the floor. When Jonny leaves on the urgent errand of locating butter for Howard’s bread and turkey for the sparse salad, Howard’s mind turns into a flashing lightbulb, signaling thoughts for fervent analysis.
Jonny is African-American, and Howard’s published detective novels, we later learn, contain some racial elements in the narrative. Howard, however, does not come across as immediately offensive, as he wraps his conversations in witty cynicism and ornamental flourish. As the plot unfolds, and the parents leave, we witness Charlotte begging Jonny for sex, to the point of spreading herself undressed to seduce her virgin friend. Nobody in the audience would buy Jonny’s excuse that it would be ethically inappropriate to take advantage of Charlotte, when they’d had wine at the table. In the snap of a finger, dialogue between Charlotte and Jonny, over the course of the play, generates talk of each being gay or not being gay, and of being in love with each other erotically or being in love with each other platonically. Further analysis, generated well beyond Howard’s frantic lightbulb moments, concern Howard and Lucinda’s relationship, as Howard, whose novels contain graphic sex, is looking for his own middle-age fulfillment, and Lucinda, who smokes everything she can get, just wants to be a girl again, or, maybe, never grew up. The second act has more upscale scenery, as Howard and Lucinda’s home takes shape, with a sense of inside-outside.
Throughout Ms. Doran’s play, there’s poignancy, surprise, and wit, along with Howard’s one-liners, delivered in Mr. Shalhoub’s finely wrought sarcasm. Yet, there are moments (not to ruin a few surprises) that seem over-planned, too well timed, or just unnecessary. Mr. Shalhoub remains one of the most riveting actors (his lead in last season’s Act One at Lincoln Center was also stunning) on stage today. Less interesting were the other three leads, or it may just have been the play. Ms. Rankin did well with the role of the ever-shifting, self-obsessed Charlotte, who began the play, offering her hungry parents lettuce and bread for dinner. Mr. Athie, as Jonny, morphs within the play, but remains, well, a mystery, even though he “reveals” much, within the shadows of the stage. Perhaps that was the metaphor, but, again, he seemed like a sitcom character, as did they all, much of the time. When Jonny reveals the topic of his ongoing dissertation, which uncovers Howard’s perceived racism, analyzed through Howard’s narrative novels, Jonny doesn’t fully exude the ingrained passion that would have been the catalyst for his dissertation choice. Instead, he reveals that much of his “study” is now public, on social media. And, Ms. Lane, whose Lucinda has an authentic southern accent, seemed, eventually, too “high” and strung out, the quintessential lady-in-search-of-a-spa.
Along with racism, there’s also angst and identity of religion, politics, and hints of ageism, as Ms. Doran checks off all her hot-button topics. Sam Gold, a fine Director, works well with the play at hand, especially maximizing Mr. Shalhoub’s stage time. Kaye Voyce’s costumes were especially noteworthy in the second act, and Jane Cox kept the second act, indoors-outdoors effects warmly lit. Daniel Kluger’s sound and music were respectively resonant and calming.