The Mystery of Love and Sex, which opened this weekend at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum, certainly leaves no stone unturned when it comes to controversial topics. Sexuality, race, religion, and, perhaps most importantly, family and friendship are covered extensively in this provocative play by Bathsheba Doran, who has also served as a television writer on Masters of Sex and Smash. While this simply staged play that is certainly for mature audiences only may not actually demystify love or sex, it explores the many complex facets of relationships through the eyes of two generations of characters.
When the play opens, parents Lucinda (Sharon Lawrence) and Howard (David Pittu) are visiting their daughter, Charlotte (Mae Whitman), and her childhood best friend, Jonny (York Walker), at college. Bathsheba does an excellent job with slowly revealing information—the exact nature of Charlotte and Jonny’s relationship is intentionally muddled in the opening scene, and the stage is immediately set for the many issues that come up throughout the course of the play. Howard, a Jewish author of detective novels, and Lucinda, free-spirited and perpetually dissatisfied, are concerned about Charlotte’s close friendship with Jonny turning romantic. Charlotte is quick to assume they don’t approve of Jonny, whom they have known since he was 9 years old, because he is black; they insist otherwise. Meanwhile, Charlotte and Jonny are each dealing with their own issues. Charlotte thinks she is in love with Jonny, but also might be in love with Claire, a girl from one of her classes. Jonny is in denial about his mother’s declining health, and also distancing himself from all romantic relationships for reasons he refuses to admit. Bottom line is, it is all very complicated, much like life.
Robert Egan’s direction is smart and rather simple, allowing the hefty amounts of dialogue and emotions to take the spotlight. The set is sparse, with the cast moving props and furniture around themselves as needed to convey changes in time and location. One thing I enjoyed about Bathsheba’s writing is that she never holds her audience by the hand—the play moves quickly through time, with act two taking place five years after act one, and there are never unnecessary amounts of exposition. She trusts that the audience will follow the action, and information is revealed only as needed.
The cast was excellent, helping to create four incredibly well-drawn characters—by the end of the two and a half hours I felt I understood them inside and out. One minor criticism I have is not of the actors, but rather of the space—the 739-seat Mark Taper Forum is kind of an in-between venue in terms of size, and as a result the actors do not wear microphones. While this has never bothered me in previous productions at the theater, here I sometimes felt like the actors were shouting to be heard, which sometimes clashed with the tone of the scene. Regardless, the cast gave emotional, convincing performances. Lawrence and Pittu received many laughs for the more comedic moments, while Whitman (so wonderful in NBC’s dearly departed Parenthood) and relative newcomer Walker created a bond that became the true heart of the show. Rounding out the cast in a tiny but very memorable role is Robert Towers as Howard’s father.
I cannot stress enough that this play is not for younger audiences—there is rather extensive full frontal nudity, in addition to the discussion of many adult topics. The scenes in question walk a fine line between being provocative for the sake of being provocative and really adding something to the plot. Could the show have done without it? Yes. But did it add to the story and character development? Also yes—in a play that explores the impact of secrets on relationships, the nudity served as a clear metaphor for full honesty and baring it all emotionally.
That being said, I do think some moments in the play crossed the line into being provocative for the sake of being so—at times it felt like we were working through a checklist of controversial topics or things that will get an audience talking. While incredibly topical and valid points, all of the talk about religion and discrimination sometimes distracted from the messages about friendship and love and trust that I found to be the most poignant, well-developed aspects of the show.
The Mystery of Love and Sex runs at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum through March 20th. Tickets range from $25-$85 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org.