What’s really mysterious about Bathsheba Doran’s The Mystery of Love and Sex is her rendering of the word mystery itself, in the title: singular rather than plural, as if there were only one. As if anybody who’s reached the age of interest (i.e., most living humans) can’t easily think of 10,000 riddles, enigmas, conundrums, and secrets relating to love and sex and the interactions thereof. Sure, we all spend our lives asking a single question when it comes to those subjects—a bewildered “Hunh?” But that hunh means something different every single goddamn time.
Especially now. It’s argued that America’s belated and uneasy acknowledgment of multiple sexual and gender identities will take some of the awful mystery out of romance, allowing us to be more frankly and specifically who we are. I doubt it. As a practical matter, the death of the binary makes flirtations more fraught than ever, each one constituting its own new universe of mysteries.
The current cultural wobble figures among the hunhs of The Mystery of Love and Sex. In fact, sexual preference appears at times to be Doran’s subject. Yet it’s nothing but window dressing in the end—a way to add an edgy frisson that was sure to have been appreciated in 2015, when the play premiered at New York’s Lincoln Center. The playwright’s actual focus has been a staple of theatrical investigation since the classical period: the question of why our physical desires so seldom align with those of our hearts.
Here to investigate the matter are Charlotte, Jonny, Lucinda, and Howard. They come as a set, and we spend about ten years with them overall. Lucinda (the excellent Lia Mortensen) is the mom, a southern girl of a particular sort: white, well-bred, sharp-tongued, and fun loving in a way that might get scary after the third or fourth wine spritzer. She smokes too much and calls people “sugar.” Lucinda went north to college and brought back Howard, her very own New York Jew, mostly just to rile daddy—which worked splendidly.
Howard (the usually excellent Keith Kupferer, somewhat too teddy bearish this time around) became a successful, workaholic novelist specializing in detective fiction, and Lucinda, naturally, grew to revile him. Together they engendered Charlotte (Hayley Burgess): talkative, passionate, sweetly manic, and entirely too unguarded. She and Jonny have been soul mates since they were nine years old, the age at which Charlotte tried to commit suicide—a coincidence that goes oddly unremarked in the script. When we first meet them, during their freshman year at college, Charlotte and Jonny’s affinity is as total as it is unconventional, given that Jonny is a black boy from a broken home. And they enjoy that about themselves. “I feel like we’re this model of how the world should be,” Charlotte tells Jonny while sitting around in her dorm room. “There should totally be a documentary about us,” Jonny replies.
Of course this cannot stand. Charlotte tries to push their hitherto platonic relationship to the next level, quite literally offering Jonny her naked body. But he demurs. Can it be that he doesn’t want to risk losing their spiritual bond for the sake of a momentary pleasure? All things being equal and the invitation being clear, no college-age male would fail to take that risk. Then what oh what can it possibly be? Doran tries to make us wonder. But, especially as embodied by Travis Turner in Marti Lyons’s staging, running now at Writers Theatre, any moderately astute audience member would see from the start that Jonny’s reticence is rooted in the fact that (spoiler alert!) he’s gay.
You might think Lyons and Doran put Jonny’s secret in plain sight as strategy, to dramatize the notion that Charlotte is intentionally blind and hence has reasons of her own for ignoring the obvious. But the collegiate Charlotte isn’t in denial about her own same-sex impulses (although she initially likes to think of herself as bisexual), so where’s the motive? What’s more, Howard and Lucinda don’t catch on either—especially hard to believe where unfiltered Lucinda is concerned. No, Jonny’s unacknowledged orientation seems best explained as a contrivance meant to complete a literary symmetry: Howard and Lucinda are sexually suited but out of love, Jonny and Charlotte in love but sexually off-limits to each other.
Doran goes on to bend that contrivance toward what can only be described as a liberal’s feel-good ending. Mystery, it turns out, isn’t an investigation but an act of wish fulfillment. Hunh. v