Review: ‘The Mystery of Love & Sex’ at Signature Theatre

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Do you want to feel good? Do you want to forget for a couple of hours the political hate speech that’s currently filling the airways, or the vast economic inequality and the rise of a political oligarchy?

Well, do I have the show for you!

Shayna Blass
Jeff Still, Shayna Bliss, Xavier Scott Evans, and Emily Townley. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Bathsheba Doran’s The Mystery of Love & Sex, now playing at Signature Theatre, is just the show for you.

Funny and lively, wonderfully acted and well-paced by Director Stella Powell-Jones, this comedy will make you wish that all the world’s mysteries, sexual or love-based, were more like those brewing in a well-off liberal Jewish family living in the Deep South next to a Christian linguistically-gifted African American young man, who might as well be the son that the family never had.

The troubles this family faces are all so very fixable given the right amount of time and comedy.

Shayna Blass plays Charlotte, a highly sexually repressed college student, born to a bossy New York Jew and a Southern Belle of a Christian, who drinks and smokes too much. Blass’ Charlotte strikes the perfect cord between her character’s unbelievably naive college senior of the 21st century and the sophisticated, happy post-college adult who seems to have it all figured out.

Her parents, Howard and Lucinda, are played magnificently by Jeff Still and Emily Townley.

Still’s Howard is pushy and forward, while still maintaining his likeability, while Townley’s Lucinda not only turns lines that could easily fall flat into explosive belly laughs but also gives her character a desperate resilience to the slings and arrows of upperclass Southern life. She is a joy to watch.

The real star of the show, however, is Xavier Scott Evans as Jonny, Charlotte’s Baptist friend next door. Not only does playwright Doran give his character a fresh, thought-provoking uniqueness but Evans’s portrayal is authentically gawky yet forceful.

We watch his Jonny take on life’s many everyday challenges with a wonderfully vulnerable appeal.

For at the core of Mystery’s story are the psycho-emotional developments of the play’s two protagonists, Charlotte and Jonny. Childhood friends, they begin the play as two college seniors, who are in deep denial about who they are and what they want.

Does Charlotte want to marry Jonny? Or would she prefer to explore desire with a female college classmate with a butch hairdo and for whom she feels a white heat in “her vagina”?

Is Jonny, on the other hand, the passionate Christian he claims to be or is he a homosexual with a celibate’s face who find Christianity a welcome excuse for not having “to there”?

Fortunately, the play does not rest on the mystery of how these questions will be answered; for even though Doran skillfully keeps the play’s plot full of surprises and clever turns-of-phrase, she does not venture into the emotional complexity these life dichotomies might present.  You’ll find no tragedy here in the Kingdom of Sex and Love, except maybe in the backstory.

By the time the play ends (no spoiler alert here) Charlotte and Jonny are two successful young adults without a problem in the world.

Signature presents The Mystery of Love & Sex in the Max, in a thrust, and in the “max”, so to speak: as in as soon as you walk into the theatre you’ll be taken by the space’s openness.

The design team has done a fabulous job both conceptualizing and managing the story’s multiple locales over a five-year period.

Scenic Designer James Kronzer keeps the space essential yet varied. Aided by Lighting Designer Jesse Belsky, the play’s actions shifts between different types of interiors before finally venturing outside during Act II.

Costume Designer Asta Bennie Hostetter zeros in on the present and keeps everyone looking sharp, except of course when Charlotte and Jonny are playing “Bohmes” during their college years.

Shayna Blass and Xavier Scott Evans. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Shayna Blass and Xavier Scott Evans. Photo by Margot Schulman.

James Bigbee Garver’s Sound Design and Music Remix support the shifting moods of the play even as they help with the scene changes.

To be sure, the lighted hearted fun of The Mystery of Love & Sex will challenge the slightly bigoted, or even the rabbinical, as when Howard’s Father, played by David A. Schmidt, steps into his son’s backyard to find a tall, naked black man standing before his granddaughter. He flees the scene in a fluster, but what right-minded human being wouldn’t, right?

And such a challenge, given that most of humanity is at least slightly bigoted about someone or some group, will leave this Mystery resounding in your head; but only in a pleasant way.

No trauma. No guilt. No pain. Only a curious wonder: might all mysteries be so pleasantly concluded and so thoroughly free of all complications.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission.

The Mystery of Love & Sex plays through May 6, 2016 at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.

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