Thursday, April 26, 2018

"The Mystery of Love and Sex"

The Mystery of Love and Sex
Bathsheba Doran

Kenny Scott & Linda Maria Girón
Charlotte and Jonny, who have been pals since they were nine, now are dormie buddies in college and about to host her parents for a ‘heatless’ dinner (aka salad and French bread sans the butter they forgot to buy).  That she is white and Jewish and he is black and Baptist seems not to bother them at all.  Charlotte’s liberal-minded parents, Lucinda and Howard, are fighting hard not to be too concerned that this multi-mixed combo may be on their way at some point to the marriage altar; after all she is southern Christian and he is New York Jewish.  But in Bathsheba Doran’s The Mystery of Love and Sex, now receiving it regional premiere at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, there are many more complications soon to enter into the web of relationships that these four individuals represent from questions of sexual orientation to accusations of racism.  So many ins and outs, ups and downs, and dramatic twists and turns occur that the play at times begins to look like a made-for-TV soap opera on a channel that allows plenty of F-words and full nudity.  Luckily, the NCTC cast overall can hang on well enough during their rollercoaster ride to ensure we as audience are fully entertained during the two-hour, wild outing.

The many short scenes of Bathsheba Doran’s play that premiered at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2015 each seem to bring another surprising revelation by one or more members of this extended family.  As we meet them, Charlotte (Linda Maria Girón) and Jonny (Kenny Scott) are professing how much they love each other.  What is not clear to either of them (and certainly soon not to us) is what kind of love they mean: a brother-sister-like love, a platonic love of a live-in couple with no sex, or a love that could finally blossom into bedroom bliss? 

Soon to complicate the deliberations – but in no way to answer the question – is Charlotte’s confession that she has the hots for Claire, “the girl with the shaved head.”  However, that does not keep her from abruptly stripping in front of Jonny, trying to entice him with all sorts of sexy come-ons for a romp while all the time he huddles in a corner doing all he can not to look or to touch her.  Part of his reluctance is that Jonny is having his own issues finding his proper placement on the Kinsey Scale, something that goes back to a boy named Edward he once met at camp -- the one they both remember was “as pretty as a girl.”

Linda Maria Girón & Kenny Scott
As are often true for early twenty-somethings, a number of love relationships are going to come and go for these two in the course of the five years covered by Ms. Doran’s play.  But their own unsolved mystery of the kind of relationship they actually have and want to continue to have with each other will create a minefield of potential explosions that sometimes do great damage when ignited.  Both actors display a wide range of emotional responses as they traverse Charlotte’s and Jonny’s journeys, from sweet moments that make for someday’s happy memories to foul-mouthed, full-scream battles that leave scars of hurt not too soon forgotten.  And all along the way, each is struggling with accepting to be whom each is not at all sure she/he wants to be ... even thinking at times, as Jonny admits, “I kinda don’t want to be.”

For many playwrights, these two coming of age and coming out stories might be fodder enough for an intriguing, enlightening, and moving play.  However, Bathsheba Doran is only beginning to scratch the surface of all the issues and mysteries underlying these two young people as well as the parents of Charlotte. 

Kenny Scott, Linda Maria Girón & Dave Sikula
From the first dorm-setting lunch party that we witness, the occasional snapping and snarling between Howard and Lucinda provide evidence enough that all is not well, even as they relapse into smiley, cuddly poses from time to time.  Like with the ‘kids,’ theirs is a relationship fraught with mysteries past and continuing, new developments between them and others to be revealed all along the way.  Each has a flashpoint whose conflagration temperature is often quite low.  And when the flame does hit, both Dave Sikula as former New Yorker Howard and Shay Oglesby-Smith as the aging Southern Belle Lucinda know how to let it fly in a force both wicked and wily. 

But wait, Ms. Doran is not done yet.  Let’s add in addiction issues of various sorts all around.   Sprinkle in an author (Howard) whose twenty-nine books evidently have threads of racism, sexism, and homophobia entwined throughout them.  Throw in a young aspiring professor/author (Jonny) who is not about to let those go unnoticed.  Swirl in everyone at some point feeling betrayed, lied to, and abandoned; but be sure to note everyone at some point is forgiving, remorseful, and happy again (at least for a while).  The resulting recipe is a story that just keeps on giving and giving to the point of plunging into overdone melodrama, even while tackling head-on often and with heart topics contemporary, sensitive, and important. 

Often using humor in playful ways and other times employing outright confrontation, stereotypes associated with African-Americans, Jews, women, and gays are effectively tackled by Bathsheba Doran’s script and Rebecca Longworth’s direction.  Attempts at dancing become a great teacher and an effective metaphor for points the playwright wants to make, with the associated scenes some of the best of the evening. 

One of the issues Rebecca Longworth has as director is not losing the emotional flow of the story between all the many scenes -- many of which end in a blackout with some new emotional high or low.  That is not made any easier with scene changes in the small Walker Theatre that are overall clumsy and awkward for the cast members to implement.  Ting Na Wang’s set elements are simple and effective; but they must be pushed, dragged, and carried in so many pieces and ways (along with realistic props designed by Christopher Daroca that more than once fell as they were transported) that the transitions become distracting. 

New Conservatory Theatre Center once again has provided a venue and a set of talented individuals to introduce the Bay Area to a playwright and a new work tackling tough issues and important questions.  That Bathsheba Doran’s The Mystery of Love and Sex sometimes goes overboard in packing so much into its unfolding scenes of love and lust sought, lost, and found again is not a fatal flaw but just a bit annoying and tiring at times.  Overall, NCTC’s The Mystery of Love and Sex is still a worthwhile and entertaining evening.

Rating: 3 E

The Mystery of Love and Sex continues through May 20, 2018 on the Walker Stage of New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photo by Lois Tema


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