Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Celebrating Characters and Their Issues: “The Mystery of Love and Sex” at the Taper
If you’re going to write an “issue play,” it simply doesn’t work unless the characters are recognizable. If you’re going to write a truly funny, if also grounded, issue play your characters, rounded and filled with rough edges though they may be, need to also be likable. And that’s what makes “The Mystery of Love and Sex” work: you both recognize and, at least essentially like even the most screwed up of the four characters you meet.
Bathsheba Doran’s play, receiving its west coast premiere at the Mark Taper Forum, examines all the little (and big) prejudices evident even in the most liberal people, yet does so in such a way that is both funny – often very, very funny – and in a subtle way, loving. She likes these flawed people as much as the audience comes to, allowing them to listen to the lessons attached at an almost subliminal level.
Charlotte and Jonny, friends since they were 9, invite Charlotte’s parents to dinner in their college dorm. Parents Lucinda and Howard speculate on whether Charlotte and Jonny are an item, and yet as the evening progresses (and the question is answered for the audience) they also push all kinds of buttons for each of the younger people in turn.
This is just the beginning of the saga. Charlotte’s father is Jewish and from New York. Her mother is from the South and was disowned when she converted and married a Jew. Jonny is Black and was raised by a single mom. Their communal story flows from this initial dinner over a five-year span of deep friendship, love, deep hurt, discovery, and truth.
Mae Whitman centers the piece as Charlotte: impulsive, insecure, and cerebral, she is still figuring out who she is when the play opens. York Walker makes Jonny a quiet, thinking young man also finding his own way: the antithesis of stereotype and yet centered in a space of awareness about privilege even as he sinks into the long-standing, comparatively undemanding friendship he and Charlotte share.
David Pittu makes Howard likable in spite of himself. A successful if somewhat formulaic mystery writer, he doesn’t hear the prejudices he speaks and writes, and assumes commonalities which don’t always exist. Yet, he cares deeply for his sometimes troubled daughter, her life, and her friend. Sharon Lawrence, gives the agitated, sometimes snarky Lucinda a humanity behind the barbs which unfolds as the play progresses in rich and revealing ways.
One must also nod to Robert Towers, whose extremely brief walk-on as Howard’s father becomes one of the funniest moments in the show.
Director Robert Egan has a feel for these people, and their struggles and intimacies flow from very natural space as a result. Gifted with Takeshi Kata’s seemly plain but truly fluid and versatile set, the scenes move easily into each other, keeping the emotional continuity going. As a result, the thing is a joy to watch.
One caution for the fainter of heart: there are two totally appropriate instances of full nudity in the piece. And yes, this family has some impressive dysfunctions, yet even then the piece (and the characters) prove equally impressively un-grim: dysfunction does not equal dystopia. Thus we can recognize, perhaps even like what we see. Most certainly we can laugh heartily at what we recognize, even as – somewhere in the back of mind – we hear “oh, wait…”.
What: “The Mystery of Love and Sex: When: Through March 20, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org