by Lynn on April 1, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, New York.

Written by Bathsheba Doran
Directed by Sam Gold
Sets by Andrew Lieberman
Costumes by Kaye Voyce
Lighting by Jane Cox
Original Music and sound by Daniel Kluger
Starring: Mamoudou Athie
Diane Lane
Bernie Passeltiner
Gayle Rankin
Tony Shalhoub

A play full of perception about relationships, families, love, sex and emotional confusion, but it’s so chock full of incident that the play feels overstuffed, and one part feels underwritten.

The Story. Act I is five years ago. Act II is the present. The Place is “the outskirts of major cities in the American South.” (according to the program). There are two couples, Lucinda and Howard and Charlotte and Jonny. Lucinda and Howard are stylishly middle-aged, long married. Howard is an angst-ridden New York Jew who writes detective novels. His wife Lucinda is a ‘southern belle’ who does not seem to work. She is gracious, not angst ridden. As the program indicates, they live in the south and not New York.

Charlotte is their college-aged daughter. She has been raised Jewish. Jonny is her boyfriend. They live together. He is courtly, firmly Baptist, and black. They have known each other since they were nine-years-old and practically lived next door. They have been staunch friends since then.

Lucinda and Howard have been invited to Charlotte and Jonny’s for a simple supper. It’s the first time Lucinda and Howard have been there. It seems there are no chairs. They all sit on the floor. They are having salad and bread for supper. There is no butter. Howard pouts about that after he manages to twist himself down to the floor. Now where will he put his feet and will he get a cramp doing it? He wants butter. Jonny leaves to get it.

The interrogation begins. The folks want to know about Charlotte and Jonny’s relationship. Charlotte says they are beyond dating. What does that mean? Howard thinks the worst that their relationship has developed into the physical; that he is loosing his beloved daughter to a young man he has known forever, who is Baptist and black.

Lucinda and Howard’s marriage is shaky. As gracious as she is, Lucinda seems to quietly taunt Howard. She smokes at the table. He hates that. He says so. She fights back in her own passive-aggressive way making him look like an impossible curmudgeon. (Aside. Is it possible to be a New York Jew and not be a curmudgeon? I only ask because those words: New York Jew and curmudgeon seem to be the accepted descriptor.) In any case, Howard complains frequently; Lucinda smiles her way through most things; Charlotte wants to take her relationship with Jonny further and he does not. They love each other so shouldn’t sex follow, Charlotte assumes. Presumably not, is Jonny’s point of view.

Over the course of the play secrets will be revealed; lies will be told and uncovered; relationships will be tested and changed; sexual orientation will surprise and unsettle people. The Mystery of Love & Sex is definitely a play full of incident.

The Production. The world of the play looks light and airy thanks director Sam Gold, Andrew Lieberman’s spare set and Jane Cox’s lighting. A gauzy curtain sometimes pulled along the width of the stage suggests the ‘comfortable’ life-style of Howard and Lucinda—‘comfortable’ in the sense that money is not an issue to this couple. The curtain also suggests a bit of mystery. Can a person stand behind it and listen to what is going on in front of it? Yes. Sometimes Lucinda appears from behind the curtain just as someone on stage is saying something she might not want to hear.

Howard with his fretting, angst-ridden concerns for his daughter and his grudging acceptance (sort of), of Jonny comes out full blown in Tony Shalhoub’s twitchy, commanding, often funny performance. He played George S. Kaufman is Act One in a similar, inventive way. Is this a coincidence? Is it also too close to Monk, a character he played on the television series of the same name? Or do all of these characters have the same characteristics? Don’t know. But I do love watching as Shalhoub ferrets out his characters. And his efforts for the middle aged Howard to get down to the floor where he will sit for the meal is a thing of comic beauty. I got a sympathetic cramp in the back of my leg as he twisted himself down to a sitting position.

Shalhoub has a keen sense of how to flip a pointed remark and barb with ease. Howard conveys that he feels the weight of his Jewishness and all it represents with every comment of how the Jews have suffered. Every other character is on edge as a result. I love the delicacy but firm hand of Sam Gold’s direction in establishing all these intricate relationships.

As Charlotte, Gayle Rankin has the confidence of a person completely loved and cherished by her parents and certainly her father. She can do no wrong. That attitude has made her bold, fearless and open. She wants Jonny to have sex with her. She challenges him. She strips off, lays on the table ready for him to take up the challenge. He won’t make a move. He is a virgin and will remain so until the right time for him. All the embarrassment, humiliation and loneliness are there as Rankin waits and waits and nothing happens. It’s a scene that makes one hold one’s breath. As Charlotte comes to terms with who she is, there is a sense of comfort in that realization.

Jonny is a young man trying to come to terms with his place in the world, with his place in Charlotte’s life, with his beliefs and sexuality. He harbours certain resentments. It’s interesting how they all slowly reveal themselves. As Jonny, Mamoudou Athie has a voice full of maturity but a stage presence that seems stiff. I don’t think it’s the character stiffness, I think it’s an actor who needs more experience. I do want to see him in something else.

Lucinda is a mystery. She certainly is played with graciousness and humour by Diane Lane. Lucinda knows how to press Howard’s buttons and Lane has that sense in her thoughtful performance. But I can’t help but feel that the part of Lucinda is underwritten. Howard has a wonderful speech in which he describes seeing Lucinda for the first time and being instantly helpless with wanting her. I can’t recall as vivid a speech for Lucinda. Hers seems like a life of disappointment under that graciousness. But writer Bathsheba Doran has not fleshed out why.

Comment. My concerns about the underwritten part of Lucinda notwithstanding, I think Bathsheba Doran is a vivid, rich writer. While I am certainly engaged with the production and the play I think the play is overstuffed with twists, turns, revelations and endless character surprises. I know life is messy and full like that, but life and its revelations are spread over several years if you’re lucky. Theatre isn’t like that. If you put endless twists in a story or revelations in several characters in a short 2 hours and 15 minutes of a play, then the whole thing seems bloated. You stop suspending disbelief after a while

In the words of Antonin Artaud, that wild man of theatre theory, “theatre is life lived on purpose.” You judiciously cut the bits that don’t serve the purpose of the work. While there might be ‘eight million stories in the naked city” they don’t all have to be in one play.

I appreciate that the play is about love first and sex later. I love that the characters, no matter how awkward, are groping towards finding true love and being surprised when it appears and not necessarily where they think they will find it. There is much to admire in Bathsheba Doan’s play. She knows and understands the value of there being three sides to every story. I just wish she had cut back a few of her many layers of it. I do look forward to her next play though.

Presented by Lincoln Center Theater.

Run: February 5, 2015 to April 26, 2015
Cast: 5; 3 men, two women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, approx.

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1 Annette April 1, 2015 at 11:32 am

Oh, how kind you are.