Most people have that friend. You know, that friend.The one you’re so close to that it makes other people uncomfortable or makes them question your sexuality or makes them say “I wish they’d just do it already!”
In Signature’s new not-so-straight straight play Mystery of Love and Sex, Charlotte and Jonny are exactly those friends. But their stable relationship bubble bursts when Charlotte’s parents put the pressure on their platonic love. Charlotte proposes that she and Jonny have sex to rid him of his virginity, test the validity of her girl-crush on a shorn lesbian, and auger the depths of their friendship for signs of romance. What could possibly go wrong? Only everything.
At its heart, Mystery of Love and Sex is a romantic comedy, complete with its leading odd couple, quirky parental figures, long buried secrets, unserendipitous emotional conflict, and, eventually, a kind of resolution. The elements that make Bathsheba Doran’s play and Signature’s production feel new are sharp acting choices by the lead actors, Doran’s knack for genuine-feeling reaction, and its layers of self-searching sexuality, all of which let Mystery of Love and Sex give the genre some colorful spin and pop.
Xavier Scott Evans plays Jonny as a man layered with repression. Evans smartly holds the anxiety of Jonny’s repression and nerdy awkwardness in his shoulders and masks it by his stomping, lurpy, and almost child-like steps. Throughout the first act, he peels off those layers, makes a radical change early in the second act, but then finds echoes of those former layers in his physicality. It’s an acting strategy that really helps the audience follow Jonny’s tumultuous journey with Charlotte.
Charlotte is the real hub of this story though. My companion called Shayna Blass “watchable,” and she was very correct. That watchability comes from the great sense of presence Blass exudes onstage. Presence is a difficult quality to master, but it gives characters a je ne sais quoi depth. Blass’ sensitive and subtle work portrays a character whose essence lies in her openness to questioning, not only of her sexuality but of the loving relationships that she previously looked to for support.
While sometimes that support has come from her friendship and potential romance with Jonny, primarily it has come from her parents, another odd couple: Howard, a New York Jewish detective writer (played with fun dad-itude by Jeff Still) and Lucinda, a charming aging debutante (local great Emily Townley) who may be estranged from her Southern family, but won’t hesitate to brutally “bless your heart” when necessary.
Howard and Lucinda do double duty in a relatively common twist on romantic comedy, by being both blocking figures, pushing Charlotte and Jonny to a crucial decision point in their relationship, and the comic relief through their own complex relationship foibles. Townley’s superb execution of withering backhanded comments and Still’s blustering directness were indeed funny as were their sometimes naked racism (“Dad, can we not do the Black versus Jew, who suffered more thing?”), homophobia (while looking at a picture of Charlotte’s crush with a shaved head “now that girl’s mother can’t assure her that she isn’t a lesbian”), and selfishness, which turns out to be more damaging than amusing. But there were times, especially early on in the play where it was needed the most, that the clarity and excitement these characters bring were sacrificed on the altar of complexity.
That’s one of the simultaneously wonderful and frustrating things about Mystery of Love and Sex: everything feels genuine – there were only a few scant moments when I didn’t fully believe that the actions onstage, even the very words, could have easily been lifted from real life. That’s an immense achievement for a playwright writing a romantic comedy. But it can also be frustrating. If when you see this play it feels a little broken but very honest, a little confused but very true, it might be because these authentic reactions and events don’t exactly fit the way that romantic comedies are typically made.
I keep harping on the romantic comedy aspect of the play because the marketing for this play is a little deceptive. Seeing advertisements with two beautiful naked people with cheeky questions attached, connected to a play called The Mystery of Love and Sex, you might think that this play is a sex farce. Nope. Doran’s play and Signature’s production is much more about the Love than the Sex. You also might think this play was about bisexuality (“Charlotte loves Jonny. And Claire.” say the ads). Wrong again. Bisexuality is mentioned once then evaporates as if it was never there, and the rest of the play relies on eye-rolling and stereotypical explanations for Charlotte’s bisexuality. Those things are what the play isn’t, but here is what it is: a quirky and somewhat unexpected comedy that examines the relationships and boundaries between friendship, romance, and sexuality.
The Mystery of Love and Sex is a fun and funny date-night play, especially for queer couples, who will recognize the struggles of the characters. It’s also a good friend date play, especially if it is with that friend. And who knows? Maybe something new will come out of seeing it together.
The Mystery of Love and Sex by Bathsheba Doran. Directed by Stella Powell-Jones . Featuring Shayna Blass, Xavier Scott Evans, David A. Schmidt, Jeff Still, and Emily Townley . Scenic Design: James Kronzer . Costume Design: Asta Bennie Hostetter . Lighting Design: Jesse Belsky . Sound Design and Music Remix: James Bigbee Garver . Stage Manager: Kerry Epstein . Produced by Signature Theatre. Reviewed by Alan Katz.