The Mystery of Love and Sex is an old-fashioned play. It put me in mind of Talley’s Folly and Fifth of July—Lanford Wilson’s family dramas built around generational strife, a fracturing of family expectations, and questions of sexual identity.
In the first act, we meet parents Howard and Lucinda, as they arrive for a modest dinner at the dorm rooms of daughter Charlotte and her friend Jonny, from childhood. The parents want to know just how close this friendship is. Charlotte wants to deflect their questions, and Jonny—well, we’re not sure what he wants—so he goes out to pick up some butter, leaving those who stay behind free to discuss him.
Howard, a totally conventional Jewish dad, is a crime-fiction writer with a disappointed wife. Tony Shalhoub is the immediately recognizable actor you’ve enjoyed for years. His Howard is awash in bits of physical business: His back is tight, his bread is dry in his mouth, he folds his smoked turkey. If I were an actor working opposite him, I’d smack him. But he’s fun to watch.
The dazzling Diane Lane (Lucinda) never misses a beat with her own comic bits. Her finger-snapping and “breathing,” as devices to help her quit smoking, become a running gag that never gets old. Lucinda’s stayed too long in this marriage, and stayed for the wrong reason. She sparkles in angry exchanges and warm ones. Lane’s performance—more than any of the others— straddles the tragicomic elements of the drama.
The young hero, Mamoudou Athie’s Jonny, seems to wrap himself in chastity and Church; he has a problem he cannot resolve until late in the second act. Athie does that really hard thing for an actor: He maintains his conflict and ambivalence for what seems like forever.
The young heroine literally unwraps herself in Act One; she hopes sex with Jonny will “fix” her fear. Gayle Rankin (Charlotte) rehearses all kinds of stratagems to bind Jonny to her. Even in their several pas de deux, she “brings it”; he retreats. Rankin keeps her balance, so to speak. You always believe her.
If Obies were given for most beautiful body seen in a new play, I would nominate Mamoudou Athie. But the nudity in this piece is not about sex; it’s about showing vulnerability. And playwright Bathsheba Doran layers in that lovely, childish, I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you’ll-show-me-yours sensibility, reminding us of all these characters have shared before we meet them.
Except for an eleventh-hour walk-on—little more than a sight gag—The Mystery of Love and Sex is a nicely balanced, four-character play. Though Jonny is not their child, Howard and Lucinda have, in their view, treated him as a member of the family. That he is black seems not to matter . . . until it does. Doran writes in all the predictable conflicts—father/son, father/daughter, brother/sister, brother/lover, mother/daughter, et cetera. They are all there—but they are not all there is.
As with Wilson’s Fifth of July, one could imagine a prequel and a sequel.
The Mystery of Love & Sex, by Bathsheba Doran; directed by Sam Gold.
WITH: Mamoudou Athie (Jonny), Diane Lane (Lucinda), Bernie Passeltiner (Howard’s father), Gayle Rankin (Charlotte), and Tony Shalhoub (Howard).
Sets by Andrew Lieberman; costumes by Kaye Voyce; lighting by Jane Cox; music and sound by Daniel Kluger. Stage manager is Janet Takami; general manager, Jessica Niebanck; production manager, Paul Smithyman. Presented by Lincoln Center Theater. André Bishop is producing artistic director; Adam Siegel, managing director. At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, 212-239-6200, lct.org. Through April 26. Running time: 2 hours with one intermission.