The best new play of this young year has brought pros Diane Lane and Tony Shalhoub and relative newcomers Gayle Rankin and Mamoudou Athie to Lincoln Center Theater At The Mitzi Newhouse in The Mystery Of Love & Sex. Bathsheba Doran’s keenly satisfying comedy of sexual matters and manners is a coming-of-age tale in the age of coming-and-going that bears a palpable kinship with Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, the Broadway revival of which is just getting underway.
Mystery opens with a Generation Gap (remember that?) set-piece in which Lucinda (Lane) and Howard (Shalhoub) are dining chez dorm room with daughter Charlotte (Rankin) and Jonny (Athie), her best friend since childhood. The meal is an eco-conscious salad (the kids would call it mindful; the parents roll with it) and the seating is on the floor (giving the ever-expert Shalhoub an excuse for some physical comic business). The location is a Southern city that might be Atlanta or Charlottesville. Howard, a successful writer of detective fiction, is a transplanted New York Jew dense with urbane acid wit, smug self-aggrandizement cloaked in native wisdom, and a sentimental heart. Lucinda is his frank, seen-it-all Southern belle convert wife. Parents and daughter are white; Jonny is black and Baptist, a neighbor from home who all but grew up in their house.
Assessing the mealtime arrangements, Lucinda concludes—not at all unhappily—that the kids’ relationship has evolved beyond friendship. She wonders, perhaps deriving some vicarious pleasure at the prospect, how much “action” Charlotte’s bed has seen. She’s wrong; Jonny and Charlotte have loved each other forever chastely and it remains so despite a scene after the parents depart when Charlotte makes her desire (or maybe it’s just her ambition) nakedly clear.
So what’s the mystery? Well, there are secrets galore held tightly by each member of this intimate quartet, many of which are revealed over the next five years as Charlotte and Jonny break-up, move apart, counter accusations and betrayals with accusations and betrayals of their own—and try to figure out who they are as sexual and sentient beings in a world whose changing attitudes towards all sorts of interpersonal affiliations morphs from liberating to bewildering to WTF? Very much to her credit, Doran is equally concerned with the emotional distance traversed by Howard and Lucinda, and lucky she is to have a quartet as finely attuned to on another as this one (that includes a brief, hilarious cameo by a fifth actor, Bernie Passeltiner near the end of the play). And what’s it, in the end, really about? Reconciliation, I supppose, and forgiveness.
Carefully and sympathetically staged by Sam Gold on Andrew Lieberman’s supernally elegant setting and beautifully lit by Jane Cox, The Mystery Of Love & Sex has a generation-defining love-me/hate-me ambivalence familiar to those of us who grew up with Wasserstein’s plays about an earlier and similarly befuddled cohort. That would include Lincoln Center Theater head André Bishop, who produced the original staging of The Heidi Chronicles and who I can’t help but feel hears a similar voice in the work of Bathsheba Doran. It’s a voice worth paying lots of attention to.