By Sandi Durell
If playwright Bathsheba Doran decided to hit every button about political correctness, incorrectness, racism, gender and marriage issues, sex, love and friendship in it’s various incarnations, then this is the play that fulfills them all.
The younger generation seems to be more adept at reaching for freedom from societal and cultural constraints and inhibitions, while those over 40 are very much restricted by it all. Young Charlotte (Gayle Rankin) and Jonny (Mamoudou Athie) have been friends since they were 9 years old. Charlotte’s Dad Howard (Tony Shalhoub) and his southern belle Christian wife Lucinda or Lulu (Diane Lane) have been operating under their own generational taboos. But they all seem to be in the same struggle of wanting and reaching for something else.
Howard is a Jewish detective story novelist and Shalhoub is delicious to watch as his droll humor and body language release little gems of superb technique. Jonny is a black, Southern Baptist and it appears, at the beginning of the play (now that he and Charlotte are sharing a dorm at college together and are best friends), they’re ready to take the next step in their relationship. But what is their relationship? And what’s the next step?
They’ve never had sex but Charlotte is already announcing to her folks, who have come to dinner for salad, and butter-less French bread (laid out on a table with sheet covering under which Howard and Lulu have slipped their legs as they sit on the floor Japanese style – – a very humor-laden scene) that she’s going to marry Jonny. The beautiful perfectly cast Diane Lane calls it ‘bohemian’ but once too often for Charlotte’s liking. Mom is trying to quit smoking and has a little routine each time of snapping her fingers, closing her eyes and breathing – adorable. Howard isn’t too pleased with what he’s hearing as he and Johnny voice, in one-upmanship style, what it’s like to be a Jew and what it’s like to be black – as they compare pogroms and slaves on a ship – who had it worse.
Racial issues and slurs fly as Jonny consistently finds Howard racist both in his writings and his attitude, referring to him as a pushy Jew. But the confusion becomes more convoluted when Charlotte announces to Jonny that she’s got a thing for a butch girl named Claire who has no hair. Jonny says it’s OK to be gay, lesbian, bi-sexual. “You’re not gay, you’re just cool.”
As the play progresses, so does the confusion of the free spirited Charlotte when she becomes dead drunk, undresses and lays nude insisting that Jonny and she have sex, to no avail as he turns away. But the confusion isn’t only Charlotte’s as the permissive parents, Howard and Lucinda, reach a dead end in their marriage and split.
It’s in the second act that truth prevails and Jonny (who has the body of an Adonis) reveals who he actually is at the wedding of Charlotte and her new mate.
There’s a walk on by grandpa (Bernie Passeltiner) at a most sensitive moment that garners the laugh intended.
Sam Gold moves his characters about with his usual aplomb and the minimal set design by Andrew Lieberman is a perfect choice.
The play could use some good editing maybe down to one act rather than the 2 hours, 20 minutes with intermission. And there is a question as to the realities and credibility of so much of what we see going on. However, the caliber of watching four top-notch actors, the younger two impressive as they hold up so well against veterans Shalhoub and Lane, makes it worthwhile.
Mystery of Love & Sex – Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, thru April 26th
*Photos: T. Charles Erickson (click images to enlarge)