Charlotte, a Caucasian Jew, and Jonny, an African American Baptist, have grown up next door to each other in a Southern suburb of a major city (possibly Atlanta) and have been best friends since they were nine. When we meet them they are college roommates. Charlotte’s parents, Lucinda, a lapsed Southern Christian, and Howard, a New York Jewish writer of a detective series, pay a visit and assume the young people are now romantically involved. (This is something that Jonny’s mother, a devout Baptist, is strongly against.) However, though Charlotte and Jonny are BBFs and always will be, they are not an item and are in love with others. On the other hand, it is a big shock to Charlotte that Lucinda and Howard’s marriage is on the verge of breakup.
Both Charlotte and Jonny are confused about their sexuality. Jonny hasn’t slept with his girlfriends explaining that his religious ethics don’t allow him to until marriage, but it rings hollow. When Charlotte announces that she is in love with another woman at Easter vacation and it becomes obvious that Jonny’s mother does not have much more time left, everyone’s equilibrium is shattered.
At the end of the first act – even with this gifted and able cast – you would not be faulted for finding the characters shallow and self-absorbed. Charlotte and Jonny’s continually discussing their feelings gets to be a bit much. Howard’s kvetching seems neurotic even though he is so articulate that he can explain his rants, while Lucinda seems to be in the play simply for comic relief and as a foil for her tempestuous husband.
Then the second act begins after the intermission, and all of the characters are five years older. Charlotte is now getting married and Jonny is a college lecturer with a book contract. Howard discovers an article online by Jonny that criticizes his 27 detective novels for their racism, sexism and homophobia. Howard feels betrayed by someone whom he felt he brought up in his house and Charlotte, of course, takes his side. Unfortunately, Jonny has the statistics to back up his point of view. Not only are there real stakes now, the pettiness and navel-gazing is gone as everyone has something important to deal with. Lucinda and Howard’s relationship seems to have gone equally downhill. Suddenly we care about these people, their problems and their friendship. By now we don’t want to see them go smash.
Under Gold’s direction – and this excellent cast – Doran’s people are three-dimensional, complicated and multi-layered. Returning to the New York stage after a 37-year absence in films, Lane is delightful as the hard-drinking, hard-smoking Southern belle who has turned her back on her family and her heritage. Following his tour de force as George S Kaufman in last year’s Act One, Shalhoub continues his exploration of neurotic intellectuals as he negotiates the territory between being a loving father and protecting his writing career as a successful though minor author.
As the childhood friends, Athie and Rankin make an indelible impression as two twentysomethings trying to find their way in the world while dealing with the confusions of first loves and sexual identity. We follow Athie’s arc from shy inexperienced young man to a strong adult who has come to terms with his beliefs and his desires. Rankin whose character is the catalyst for most of the action is much more changeable and emotional in her dealing with Charlotte’s uncertainties and bewilderments. We eventually come to care a great deal for both characters, hoping their friendship survives and that they are able to move on in their lives.
Andrew Lieberman’s scenic designs work well when they are intended to be light, open and airy. However, they do not work for the claustrophobic dormitory scenes which appear to have endless space. The costumes by Kaye Voyce define the casual chic for the bohemian parents and the casual carelessness of the younger couple. Jane Cox’s lighting design bathes the stage in a soft, poetic glow. The original music by Daniel Kluger has an otherworldly sound which reflects on the whole play. Bathsheba Doran’s The Mystery of Love & Sex takes us through darkest adolescence as it is lived today, as well as reminding us of the trials and tribulations of the generation in its prime. While only partially successful, the play ends up being an extremely satisfying evening in the theater in these capable hands.
The Mystery of Love & Sex (through April 26, 2015)
Lincoln Center Theater
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 65th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or http://www.lct.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission