In writing about “The Mystery of Love & Sex,” the work of the British-born, New York-based playwright Bathsheba Doran that is now on stage at Writers Theatre, it might be best to construct an annotated laundry list. For if nothing else — and there is very little “else” of note in this play — Doran has managed to cram more clichés about both the hot (and lukewarm) topics of the day into her two-hour drama than you might think humanly possible.
‘THE MYSTERY OF LOVE & SEX’
When: Through July 9
Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Tickets: $35 – $80
Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission
Let’s begin with the adults — Howard (Keith Kupferer), and his wife Lucinda (Lia Mortensen), who life in a Southern city that might or might not be Atlanta. Howard is a New York-bred Jew and prolific writer of detective novels. Lucinda is a well-to-do Southern woman from a Catholic family who seems to have done very little in her life, is decidedly unhappy in her marriage, is more than ready for affairs (as is her husband), and is a not-so-secret drinker and smoker of cigarettes and hash. She also is the mother of a very smart, pretty, deeply troubled daughter, now in college.
So, check off all this: A long, dysfunctional marriage, under-the-surface religious tensions, daughter in crisis, and abiding prejudices (perhaps) but a professed liberal outlook. (For Lucinda there will even be the wholly laughable promise of a future stint in the Peace Corps in Uganda; think “Book of Mormon, Revisited.”)
Now, regarding that daughter, Charlotte (Hayley Burgess). She is in the throes of a major sexual identity crisis that has been simmering since the age of nine, when she tried to commit suicide after being bullied for admiring a girl in her school. As the play opens (and time and place are not very well delineated here), she is spending some time with Jonny (Travis Turner), her soul-mate since grade school — more brother than lover, though she doesn’t quite get this. Jonny, who is African-American, is the son of a single mother (now dying of cancer). He never knew his dad, claims to be a virgin abiding by the precepts of his Baptist upbringing, and essentially grew up as part of Charlotte’s family. He also (oh please, spare me), is a black person who can’t dance very well.
In the play’s first scene, when Charlotte and Jonny invite Charlotte’s parents to dinner, things do not go well. (Think of a variation on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?,” circa 2017, and it doesn’t work at all.) Howard acts up. Lucinda acts out. And “the kids” are caught in the middle. Will they marry? Will they at least have sex? Charlotte will later strip down and bare her body and soul to Jonny, but to no avail. She then announces she is gay (or perhaps bisexual). Jonny goes on to date girls, but not very convincingly. And when he later becomes a writer of some note he gets a bit of revenge by penning a critique of Howard’s books, branding him as a racist and homophobe.
The play ends with a lesbian wedding (offstage) and a bridal gown retrieved via eBay, Facebook and FedEx, along with a somewhat repaired friendship that has Jonny stripping down to finally reveal his true self to Charlotte (and the rest of us). Equal opportunity nudity.
This cliche-ridden play about race, sexual identity, love and family dynamics has absolutely nothing new to say, but it seems to have gotten the seal of approval at Writers because it had an earlier production at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre. Under Marti Lyons’ direction (with set designer Andrew Boyce’s artful tree anchoring the bowling alley-like configuration of the smaller stage at Writers), the actors do their best. But Kupferer almost visibly cringes under the weight of playing a Jewish man whose character might delight an anti-Semite. Mortensen plays the role of the still sleek cougar — one she has perfected in several other recent productions. Turner does his best trying to capture his character’s secretive and conflicted persona. And Burgess, quite an interesting young actress, captures the countless neuroses that will no doubt plague Charlotte for the rest of her life. (But she has been given the play’s only good line: “What you keep inside is who you are.”)
Throughout “The Mystery of Love & Sex” I kept thinking back to Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 beauty of a coming-of-age play, “A Taste of Honey.” Doran is no Delaney. No mystery in that. This play is painful for all the wrong reasons.