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Celebrating Characters and Their Issues: “The Mystery of Love and Sex” at the Taper

L-R: Sharon Lawrence, York Walker, Mae Whitman and David Pittu in “The Mystery of Love and Sex  [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

L-R: Sharon Lawrence, York Walker, Mae Whitman and David Pittu in “The Mystery of Love and Sex [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

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

Coward’s “A Song at Twilight” – a great playwright looks in the mirror

Sharon Lawrence and Bruce Davison spar in "A Song at Twilight" at the Pasadena Playhouse [photo: Michael Lamont]

Sharon Lawrence and Bruce Davison spar in “A Song at Twilight” at the Pasadena Playhouse [photo: Michael Lamont]

One of the patterns in the lives of great modern comic playwrights comes as they move into the second half of life. At that point their work tends to balance the usual humor with a more serious undertone. Perhaps they reach for something new. More likely, a greater life experience with its backward looks and painful mistakes balances out their humorous view of the world with something nearer the heart.

Most certainly this happened to the great Noel Coward – a man of wit, bite and fame. He was also troubled along with many fellow men of letters by the cost of that fame, as their lives were lived in the spotlight in a Britain where homosexuality in men, including themselves, was punishable by imprisonment. Just a year before this Neanderthal law was repealed, he offered up a new, and now comparatively obscure play “A Song at Twilight,” about the devil’s compromise men such as himself were forced into. It proves stunning in its honesty, as well as carrying with it the traditional wry tension between the sexes.

Now at the Pasadena Playhouse, “A Song at Twilight” highlights the struggles of being a gay man from the inside, written by someone all too familiar with the risks connected in his own lifetime to simply being who he was.

Sir Hugo Latymer, a celebrated novelist of international fame, is relaxing in a suite with a beautiful view of the Alps, being waited upon by his favorite hotel employee, the charming and efficient Felix, as his wife Hilde sorts out his affairs. Suddenly he encounters – once again – the woman with whom he once had an affair, who arrives with substantive proof that his life in public is not his private truth. The results mix humor, fondness, terror and a gradual understanding of the damage a hidden life has caused not only Latymer but all those with whom he is closely connected.

Bruce Davison gives Latymer the sharp wit and casual elegance as he stands in for Coward’s own view of life. His timing is quick, and his pathos understated. It’s a beautifully and correctly underplayed part. As his German wife, Roxanne Hart brings an innate sadness to the brusk, efficient woman. Indeed, it underscores the price paid by anyone fond of the person whose lie becomes a life’s work.

Sharon Lawrence and Roxanne Hart as the two sides of care for a famed yet innately frightened man

Sharon Lawrence and Roxanne Hart as the two sides of care for a famed yet innately frightened man

Sharon Lawrence’s sharp-edged, wise yet often brutal wit as the dreaded former lover Carlotta is just the right foil for Davison, and interestingly for Hart as well. The contrasts between characters, and yet their interconnectedness at certain moments, is a sign of both the playwright’s and the actors’ art. Zach Bandler makes the affable Felix a more fully drawn character than many a hotel employee in such plays, radiating both efficient professionalism and an underlying sympathy.

Yet, as is often the case with Coward’s work, in the end what one remembers is the feel and theme of the piece. This is enhanced by Art Manke’s beautifully structured direction, which keeps what could easily become a kind of panel discussion on its feet and human. Tom Buderwitz’s set design is, in itself, a character – filled with grandeur and openness even as its central occupant finds himself incapable of at least the second and to some extent the first.

In short, the play and this production become deeply moving even as they often prove humorous. Consider how many people in that dark century of law had to live a lie in order to avoid being jailed for being themselves. Would this were a tale only told in the past tense, but as recent actions in central Africa and Russia attest, people in some parts of the world still live under that same Damoclesian sword.

And how fascinating that in the same week as this lovely production opened, Coward’s own home country allowed same-sex couples to marry. Coward would have been pleased.

What: “A Song at Twilight” When: Through April 13, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $44 – $64 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

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