New York City Theater
"The Mystery of Love and Sex"
Let’s admit it. Sex can be funny and not always romantic. Just as it’s not all huffing and puffing, neither is it all candy and flowers.
All of this may be gleaned from the quasi-romantic, quasi-emotional, very funny “The Mystery of Love and Sex,” which is as much about smoking, eating, racism, homophobia, intermarriage, parenting, divorce, virginity, seduction and the rigors of civilization, as it is about, well, love and sex.. Maybe it’s about too many things, but “Mystery,” snappily written by Bathsheba Doran and merrily directed by Sam Gold, encompasses the sheer impossibility of life’s being simply one thing or another. As acted by an all-stops-out cast, it’s also invigorating.
Charlotte and Jonny have been friends since age nine. Now, a dozen years later, they’re rooming together at college, not as lovers, mind you, although Charlotte would like that. Her parents are more than slightly aghast. After all, Charlotte’s father, Howard, is New York Jewish; her mother, Lucinda, is a lapsed southern Catholic; Jonny is not only a virginal Baptist, he’s African-American.
Will Charlotte and Jonny get together? What about her growing attachment to a fellow female student? Or his deciding to experiment with another man? Or Lucinda’s half-hearted efforts to stop smoking? Or Howard’s testiness about being pigeonholed as a misogynistic writer?
As the characters negotiate their shifting attachments, they transmogrify. Like mercury, they’re ever-changing and we, like they, are never sure where we are or where we’re going. It’s a potpourri of situations, leavened by Doran’s sure hand at characterization.
As Lucinda, Diane Lane occupies a nether world. Befogged yet cheerful, Lane’s live-and-let-live attitude emanates from a mind and body split. So shaded is Lane’s characterization that she should be roped to a New York stage and not allowed to go back to Hollywood. The invaluable Tony Shalhoub paints Howard as peptic, whiny, pained and Talmudic in his questioning, confused in his inability to get a clear picture of the surrounding fickleness.
Gayle Rankin maneuvers through Charlotte’s shoals without the least danger of being wrecked. As Jonny, Mamoudou Athie is a real find: sympathetic, incisive, unsure of his appeal and just as confused as everyone else.
For confusion is what makes “Mystery” so amusing as well as so thoughtful. You just can’t put your finger on these elusive people. Yet, while in their company, they catch you up as much in things unsaid as said. “People most of the time are opening and closing their mouths and they’re saying nothing,” observes Jonny. “Mystery,” however, says a lot.
--David A. Rosenberg
March 15, 2015