'The Mystery of Love & Sex': Theater Review

T. Charles Erickson
Diane Lane and Gayle Rankin in 'The Mystery of Love & Sex'
Despite a fine production, this muddled play engenders little love

Diane Lane returns to the New York stage for the first time in 37 years, appearing opposite Tony Shalhoub in Bathsheba Doran's reflection on the mutability of the human heart.

The chief reward of The Mystery of Love & Sex — and it's not an inconsiderable one — is the pleasure of watching the magnetic Diane Lane on a New York stage for the first time since she was 13. Still looking radiant at 50 and in effortless command, Lane finds humor and warmth not entirely evident on the page, as a Southern shiksa goddess whose defining act of rebellious attention-seeking was to shock her good-old-boy father by marrying a New York Jew, played with equally enlivening comedic notes by Tony Shalhoub. But while Sam Gold's production for Lincoln Center Theater is never dull, Bathsheba Doran's long-winded play lacks cohesion.

A Brit based in New York, Doran garnered strong reviews for her 2011 comedy-drama about complicated relationships, Kin. But her day job of late has been in the writers' room for cable and network series, among them Boardwalk Empire, Smash and Masters of Sex. Perhaps the shortage of definition here is a symptomatic reaction against writing to order on someone else's creation. But in this unwieldy, overwritten play she lurches discursively from one thematic point to the next without settling on a clear focus.

Gold searches in vain for a unifying tone while Doran concocts situations in which her incompatible characters undergo changes that speak less of their organic evolution than of the playwright's manipulative hand at work.

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The play spans a five-year period and tracks the fluid nature — albeit without much fluidity in the writing — of a handful of relationships. It reflects on the mutability of friendship, desire and both familial and romantic love, influenced by push-pull cultural barriers of race, sexuality and religious background. Throwing in some commentary on racist, sexist and homophobic stereotypes, it has more than enough elements for a nuanced contemporary investigation into the mystery (or mysteries) of the title. But this is a work that manages to be simultaneously schematic and messy, straining for parallelism across the two generations represented by its four main characters.

It opens with long-married, free-thinking liberal couple Lucinda (Lane) and Howard (Shalhoub) arriving for a dinner in the dorm of the unidentified Southern college attended by their daughter, Charlotte (Gayle Rankin). Making small talk, they dance, somewhat gingerly at first, around the obvious shift into romantic territory of Charlotte's bond with Jonny (Mamoudou Athie), the black neighbor who has been her closest friend since they were both nine-year-old outsiders. Howard is a writer of popular detective fiction who prides himself on his powers of observation and his understanding of character. But his concerns about Charlotte's choice, like those of his wife, fail to grasp the complexities of their daughter's relationship with Jonny.

Doran threads in clues only gradually, beginning with the revelation that Jonny, an uptight Christian nerd, is still a virgin despite Charlotte's unequivocal invitation to take their love beyond the nonsexual stage. There's much talk of college as a time of sexual experimentation, as illustrated by the designation of one unseen but significant character as a LUG (lesbian until graduation). But as the scars of Charlotte's and Jonny's childhoods are exposed, we learn more about what each of them is hiding from and what they are stumbling toward in terms of their sexual identities.

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With that side of the equation acquiring clarity, the play then turns in its second act to what's broken between Lucinda and Howard as they look to repair their emotional lives and seek greater fulfillment. But while there's some terrific dialogue and sparky character friction among the accomplished actors, too often these people just seem inconsistently drawn. The playwright appears to want to ground the situations in realism but at times veers almost into fantasy, such as the psychologically unconvincing notion that off-her-meds Lucinda might up and join the Peace Corps. You really expect us to buy that this flinty, funny sensualist is going to head off in search of herself in Uzbekistan?

One hurdle as the action progresses is an artificial grudge thrown in to keep Charlotte and Jonny apart, while also nudging Howard into an unlikely semblance of self-awareness. The scene in which their differences are reconciled is such a forced bookend to an awkward moment earlier in the play that it never rings true.

Gold's direction of the actors, as always, is sensitive and measured, savoring every loaded silence. But he also adds to the frustration with the distancing device of a massive rear curtain that gets noisily and needlessly pulled back and forth to move the actors from one room to another on the sparsely dressed stage. It serves as an unwelcome reminder of all the fussy business with curtains in David Leveaux's agonizingly tin-eared Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie in 2005.

However, the more insurmountable issues here are in the writing, which is verbose where it should be succinct, and reticent where it needs to be more emotionally expansive. It shouldn't take any playwright two hours and twenty minutes to make the sentimental point that people grow and change. Especially when the writer fails to make those changes credible.

The main takeaway from The Mystery of Love & Sex is the hope that after this experience and a 2012 Chicago production of Sweet Bird of Youth, the incandescent Lane has now broken the ice and will return to the stage soon in a vehicle more worthy of her gifts. Maybe a comedy?

Cast: Diane Lane, Tony Shalhoub, Mamoudou Athie, Gayle Rankin, Bernie Passeltiner

Director: Sam Gold

Playwright: Bathsheba Doran

Set designer: Andrew Lieberman

Costume designer: Kate Voyce

Lighting designer: Jane Cox

Music and sound designer: Daniel Kluger

Presented by Lincoln Center Theater