Monday, March 9, 2015

Juxtapositions: The Mystery of Love and Sex & Lives of the Saints

Mamoudou Athie, Diane Lane, Tony Shalhoub & Gayle Rankin in The Mystery of Love & Sex (Photo:T. Charles Erickson)

Bathsheba Doran’s The Mystery of Love and Sex (Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center) begins with a famous detective-thriller novelist (Tony Shalhoub) and his glamorous wife (Diane Lane) being given dinner in a college dorm by their daughter (Gayle Rankin) and her classmate (Mamoudou Athie), a young African-American man with whom she grew up. The undergrads, Charlotte and Jonny, entertain as if they were an established couple, but they don’t give off couple vibes, and Charlotte’s parents, Howard and Lucinda, are as confused as we are. When Jonny runs off to pick up a missing ingredient for the meal, Charlotte assures them that she and Jonny love each other deeply and intimates that they’re together. That isn’t the case, however, as we find out when the young people are alone. They’re inseparable best friends, but he claims he’s still a virgin and she thinks she’s fallen in love with another woman. She offers to relieve him of his virginity, but he has his eye on someone else. And though she assumes that somehow  they’ll end up together, he envisions himself settling down with another church-going Christian like himself. Charlotte’s an atheist, raised by a New York Jew and a Southern mother who converted to marry him (Lucinda has been persona non grata in her family ever since). Meanwhile Howard and Lucinda are having their own problems: she’s involved with another man.

Race, gender, sexuality, religion, even Northerners and Southerners: The Mystery of Love and Sex touches on all the divides that can screw up relationships, romantic and otherwise. The problem is that for Doran, the characters come second to the concept. It isn’t that they’re uninteresting, or stick figures she’s set up and moves around the plot to make her points, but that their interactions seem to be matters of dramatic convenience. The shaggy-dog narrative keeps churning out tensions provoked by the complications of these juxtapositions, but after a while they feel rigged. A term paper Jonny writes for an English lit course on Howard’s detective series calls him out for casual racism, sexism and homophobia; Howard finds it online because Jonny’s professor submitted it on his behalf to an obscure journal. Jonny suddenly confesses to Charlotte that he’s been sleeping with men since he was twelve or thirteen. And there are offstage presences – Jonny’s mother, dying of cancer; the young woman he starts seeing after rejecting Charlotte’s proposition to bed him; the woman Howard marries after he and Lucinda divorce; the woman Charlotte settles down with and marries in the final scene. None of these feels quite real. The only other character Doran opts to bring onstage, briefly, is Howard’s conservative Jewish papa, whose arrival has no other purpose but to facilitate a visual punch line.

The play’s a lame duck, and Sam Gold’s staging is random, inexpressive and occasionally glaringly clumsy (the physical fight that ensures between Howard and Jonny when Howard confronts the young man about his article). To be fair, I saw the play in previews and it’s possible that Gold cleaned some of it up. Gold is an exasperating director: he can pull off good work (Picnic, Seminar), but often his productions look as if he’d been checking his e-mail during rehearsal (The Realistic Joneses, The Real Thing). Still, I wasn’t sorry I checked out The Mystery of Love and Sex, because three-fourths of the cast – I’m not counting Bernie Passeltiner’s walk-on as the grandfather – give performances well worth seeing. Tony Shalhoub’s humor and intensity triumph over an unattractive role, especially in the opening scene. Gayle Rankin has some of the quality of a young Joan Cusack. And Diane Lane gives a flawless portrait of a woman who suddenly awakens to a profound discontent and the fear that she’s thrown her life away. Lane enlists her specialty, elegant authenticity, slipping deep into the character without announcing herself. Only Mamoudou Athie is unconvincing; he’s physically awkward and his line readings sound like recitations.

Liv Rooth, Carson Elrod, and Kelly Hutchinson in Lives of the Saints. (Photo: James Leynse)

Having enjoyed, for the most part, Primary Stages’ evening of David Ives one-acts, All in the Timing, two years ago, I took myself to the Duke of 42nd Street Theatre for the sequel, Lives of the Saints. Like All in the Timing, it was directed by the prolific John Rando. (Rando’s currently the King of 42nd Street, since his scintillating revival of On the Town is playing just a couple of doors down at the Lyric.) The program lists seven one-acts, but the hard-working company of five (Arnie Burton, Carson Elrod, Rick Holmes, Kathy Hutchinson and Liv Rooth) didn’t perform the first one, “Babel’s in Arms.” That’s OK: the half-dozen that remain come in at an ideal two hours. Act one includes a clever two-hander, “The Goodness of Your Heart”; a sketch called “Soap Opera” about a man who’s in love with a washing machine (it plays like one of those SNL skits that must have looked better on paper and that the writers keep going way too long in the futile hope that it will finally sort itself out); and “Enigma Variations,” which is about doppelgängers and can best be described as Theatre of the Absurd on acid and amphetamines. I thought it was insanely funny.

The second act is something of a surprise. The first and last of the pieces, “Life Signs” and “Lives of the Saints,” are a mixture of comedy and pathos, and the middle one, “It’s All Good,” is completely straight, though the plot is fantastical. It’s about a Manhattanite who goes home to Chicago and discovers his alter ego: what he would have been like if he’d stayed and married his high school girlfriend. (It’s a close variation of the script two others Davids – Diamond and Weissman – wrote for the undervalued 2000 movie comedy The Family Man, which starred Nicolas Cage and Téa Leoni.) Both “It’s All Good” and “Life Signs” are mixed; the one-act that gives the collection its title, in which two Polish Midwestern housewives prepare a funeral breakfast in the basement kitchen of their church while the three other members of the cast (the men) supply sound effects as if for an old-time radio play, is enchanting and touching in ways that are difficult to explain. The three men seem to operate as a celestial crew providing support for the devout, selfless pair, yet the piece bypasses sentimentality; it suggests early Harold Pinter sweetened by Thornton Wilder. It stayed with me. So did the expert clowning of the five actors.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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