The seeming Biblical simplicity of human attraction of one person to another, man to woman, woman to man, has never, ever really been simple. Love and attraction sometimes do not coincide. One can be sexually attracted to a person who is very, very bad and one can deeply love a person to whom one is not sexually attracted. This is the fundamental conundrum of Bathsheba Doran’s “The Mystery of Love and Sex” a giddily humorous, profoundly touching play now in production at the Mark Taper Forum.
Two college students, Charlotte (the effervescent Mae Whitman) and Jonny (tall, laconic York Walker) are tight-as-ticks friends from childhood on. The amiable duo host an uncomfortable, sit-on-the-floor dorm-room dinner for Charlotte’s parents, Howard (excellent David Pittu), a famous writer of crime thrillers, and Lucinda (silken Sharon Lawrence), a southern belle disowned by her prominent family for marrying a New York Jew. The parents clearly love Charlotte, but Howard seems reserved with Jonny, perhaps because Jonny is black and Baptist, although he would deny it. These are smart, accomplished people and their hilarious repartee provides the comedy.
But “The Mystery of Love and Sex” is not only comedy in the Neil Simon or Oscar Wilde sense of the word, although it seems so at the beginning. The playwright has more going on than gags and shtick. When Charlotte wants to move the relationship between her and Jonny to the sexual, even marital level, there is awkwardness and miscues from both would-be lovers. It’s not as easy as it may seem.
The play moves to a different level far removed from light comedy. Serious, affecting situations of sexual identity and attraction, and racial and marital conflict, pulse through the play, for the parents as well as the young people. As the drama surges, the comedy threads through taking the edge off. When the parent’s marriage teeters, tart-tongued Lucinda is always ready with a quip. Ms. Doran’s play boasts a comedic structure that has kinship with Shakespeare’s problematic plays like “The Winter’s Tale” with its anguished plot, and with “As You Like It,” which ends in classic fashion with a marriage.
“The Mystery of Love and Sex” has a scenic design of elegant simplicity by Takeshi Kata with lighting by Rui Rita. Essentially, a bare stage with chairs, tables and other furniture moved on and off with easy efficiency by the cast, and other simple elements – indoor or outdoor lights, a tire swing – flown in from above. Costumes by Laura Bauer reflect and reinforce character and situation and the sound design by Karl Fredrik Lundeberg is ideal.
The direction by Robert Egan is clear and efficient. And, for this theatre commentator, after attending many shows at ninety-nine seat houses or smaller, it is refreshing to hear actors reach to the back of the 750-seat house with the easy power of vocal projection as they move with concise clarity of action.
“The Mystery of Love and Sex” runs through March 20 at the Mark Taper Forum in Downtown Los Angeles.