Monday, February 16, 2015

The Mystery of Love & Sex

[This review contains plot elements that are necessary to properly critique the production, which some might consider spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.]

Gayle Rankin and Diane Lane
photo: T. Charles Erickson
In spite of what its cheeky title may suggest, Bathsheba Doran's The Mystery of Love & Sex has less to do with carnality than with that other form of supreme intimacy: friendship. Its central characters, Charlotte and Jonny (Gayle Rankin and Mamoudou Athie), best friends since childhood, use each other as springboards for self-discovery. They talk frankly about sex and desire, and occasionally tease the possibility of a relationship, yet it's clear that their relationship is to remain firmly in the friend-zone. They spend the majority of this overlong, fairly sloppy, occasionally entertaining play trying to figure out their sexual wants and needs, and how those impulses correspond with their non-sexual relationship.

There is a lot of merit to be found in Doran's project; intimate friendships--especially those between men and women--are rarely the subject of substantial works of fiction or drama in this century. (And when they are, as in Jennifer Westfeldt's mostly excellent 2012 film Friends With Kids, the denouement often leads the formerly platonic friends straight to the bedroom). Unfortunately, Doran bogs her protagonists down with one too many neuroses each, many of which are left as loose strands when they've served their purposes. Charlotte has a drinking problem that's never fully explained; both are religious--him devoutly Baptist, her culturally, if not observantly, Jewish--yet their devotions seem to matter only when it's convenient.

The one distinction that is most important, on which the playwright doesn't focus nearly enough energy, is the question of sexual orientation. In Act One, as undergraduates, Charlotte considers herself bi-sexual; Jonny is dating women exclusively. By Act Two, both are in committed same-sex relationships; Charlotte is engaged to her female partner, and preparations for the wedding (at which Jonny is slated to be Best Man) provide for a majority of the play's action. Five years pass between Acts One and Two, yet Doran never adequately addresses what happened in the interim. We get bullet points (both moved away; both got good jobs; Jonny is writing a book), but never the context in which they influenced the changing dynamic not just of Charlotte and Jonny's friendship, but their lives in general. Perhaps this explains why Rankin and Athie, both fine actors, give good performances, not great ones.

The best acting in this production comes from Tony Shaloub and Diane Lane, as Charlotte's parents. Shaloub adds to his spate of fine performances for Lincoln Center (this is his third production for them in as many years) as a nebbishly New Yorker displaced below the Mason-Dixon line; Lane is funny and touching throughout, and employs a flawless Georgia accent. Unfortunately, they too often draw the focus away from Charlotte and Jonny; Doran has written her comic relief more vividly than her main characters. Sam Gold's staging makes good use of the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater's often-tricky space; the production is handsome and fluid, even when the play itself is not.

I suspect a solid, ninety-minute, two character exploration of love both platonic and physical is lurking somewhere in the plodding two-and-a-half hours of The Mystery of Love & Sex. That is the play I would have liked to have seen.

[Sixth row, member ticket]

No comments: