Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse
150 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through April 26, $87
Bathsheba Doran’s The Mystery of Love and Sex explores the many facets of the title concepts in light but smart ways, touching on the complicated nature of friendship and family, romance and lust. Friends since they were nine years old, Charlotte (Gayle Rankin) and Jonny (Mamoudou Athie) are now going to the same Virginia college not far from where they were raised, and they have invited her parents, Lucinda (Diane Lane) and Howard (Tony Shalhoub), to come over for what Lucinda quickly decides is a “bohemian” dinner, on a makeshift table with salad, bread, no chairs, and cheap wine. While Lucinda gets right into the spirit of things, Howard has much more trouble, beginning with attempting to sit on the floor, then trying to serve himself some food. Soon the talk turns to the relationship between Jonny, a young black man with a sick mother, and Charlotte, a young Jewish woman preparing her own way in the world. Howard, a successful writer of detective fiction, might have been treating Jonny like a member of the family for the past decade, but now that he thinks that Jonny might become an official part of the family, he is not so happy. But the kids are still teenagers with their whole lives in front of them, and their undefined relationship grows more puzzling when Jonny starts dating another woman — and Charlotte says she has the hots for a fellow coed. Things heat up even further when the four main characters start debating such issues as racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, religion — and food. (The show features a lot of eating, so you might want to be sure to dine beforehand.) The second act takes place five years later, as some matters have been settled, but most have not, as marriage and divorce enter the conversation.
Returning to New York theater for the first time since 1977, when she was twelve, the now fifty-year-old Lane (A Little Romance, Unfaithful) is resplendent as Lucinda, her smile lighting up the entire theater, along with her rich southern accent, her character’s flair for life infectious. Shalhoub (Act One, Golden Boy) is terrific as Howard, a bundle of nerves and deeply hidden prejudices who fumbles fantastically in the opening dinner scene, showing a riotous mastery of physical comedy, while standing firm later when he gets into it with Jonny. Athie and Rankin are fine as Jonny and Charlotte, the former timid and withdrawn, the latter energetic and fancy-free, but the play slows down considerably when Lane and Shalhoub are not onstage. One of the busiest directors in New York, Sam Gold, who has helmed such delights as Fun Home, The Realistic Joneses, and Seminar, makes good use of the small Newhouse stage, keeping things moving proficiently on Andrew Lieberman’s minimalist sets, which generally consist of a few pieces of furniture and long drapes in the back. Doran, who has written such other plays as Kin and Nest and for such cable series as Boardwalk Empire and Masters of Sex, has a gift for creating unpredictable situations and taking them further than expected with a smooth calm, although she is occasionally too clever for her own good. The Mystery of Love and Sex is a perfectly pleasant piece of theater, a tasty morsel if not quite the gourmet meal it attempts to be.