NEW YORK (AP) — Love and sex are both pretty big topics, and while Bathsheba Doran's new play, "The Mystery of Love & Sex," illuminates both with gentle humor, it's also about how secrets can test the bonds of friendship and love.
Lincoln Center Theater commissioned the play from Doran, who also wrote "Kin" (at Playwrights Horizons) and is a writer on the HBO series, "Boardwalk Empire." The quirky, bittersweet relationship drama is filled with one-liners and jokes that are often politically incorrect but funny. An engaging production, directed with compassion and sensitivity by Sam Gold, opened Monday night off-Broadway at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.
Tony Shalhoub (a Tony nominee for "Act One" and "Golden Boy," and a multiple Emmy winner for the TV series "Monk") plays a charmingly condescending, witty liberal Jewish author named Howard, living in Georgia and long married to a smart Southerner, Lucinda (Diane Lane). Shalhoub is a delight, making Howard lovable despite his pompous pronouncements and latent racism and homophobia. Lane (returning to the New York stage after almost 40 years) is quite winning as well, smartly underplaying the Southern belle.
Their daughter Charlotte (Gayle Rankin) is attending college along with her best friend, Jonny, (Mamoudou Athie), an African-American neighbor who is considered part of the family. Charlotte is unhappily discovering repressed sexual orientations, and Rankin is sweetly expressive, sensitively presenting Charlotte's insecurities, depression and exuberances with equal flair. Athie is serious, stiff and cautious as Jonny, who loves Charlotte as his best friend but that's as far as he wants to take it.
Gold, who recently directed "The Real Thing" on Broadway, is expert at allowing the actors to reveal little everyday epiphanies in Doran's seemingly mundane scenes. Charlotte's and Jonny's friendship falls apart, reforms, and falls apart again over a period of five years. Lucinda rebels against her sexless marriage, and there are some bitter battles between the parents, between both young people, and between Jonny and Howard.
Doran's off-beat dialogue includes unconsciously prejudiced things people say in real life that contain humorous kernels of truth regarding religion, race and homophobia. Jonny tells Charlotte her father is "a pushy Jew," which shocks her, so he adds, "You've said it a thousand times. Nothing wrong with being a pushy Jew. Without pushy Jews we wouldn't have Hollywood."
Despite many arguments and estrangements, and anger over secrets, Doran's play is ultimately about the endurance of all kinds of love.