Director Marti Lyons and actor Travis Turner are both cagey about revealing too much about The Mystery of Love and Sex. The 2015 drama, by lesbian playwright Bathsheba Doran ( Masters of Sex; Boardwalk Empire ), is now making its Chicago-area premiere at Writers Theatre in Glencoe.
"One of the keys of the play is to not give too much away, despite the fact that there are some core central issues about identity and sexual identity," said Lyons, who is making her Writers Theatre directing debut. "It unfolds almost like a mystery with a structure like a detective story in that you don't necessarily know where the play is going."
Yet one obvious clue about what is in The Mystery of Love and Sex is revealed with Writers Theatre's very fleshy advertising art. Audiences are unquestionably teased about the provocatively titled play since two of its stars, Turner and Hayley Burgess, are nearly nude.
"That poster is something else," said Turner with a laugh, adding that the photo session was as far back as last summer. "Hayley and I had an early bonding experience shooting that."
Lyons said the revealing poster art was not her idea. Yet she concedes that it does strongly hint at what will go on in the play in terms of onstage nudity.
"The revealing of one's self, obviously there's a literal component to that in our play," Lyons said. "But it also serves as a metaphor for the bearing of one's soul to the one that you love. And the vulnerability of taking the risk for being loved for who you really are and all that entails and the vulnerability of being in that naked state."
For Turner, the poster art evokes biblical ideas of Adam and Eve and original sin in exploring the fraught friendships between his character of Jonny and Burgess as the play's heroine, Charlotte.
"[The nudity is] not a huge spoiler because when you come to see the play, there's going to be signs posted in the lobby about the show containing nudity," Turner said.
Turner recently left Windy City Playhouse's ongoing production of Robert O'Hara's often confrontational comedy Bootycandy, which also had lobby warning signs about onstage nudity, among other things.
Turner was grateful to both Writers Theatre and the Windy City Playhouse for being so very accommodating to him as he juggled rehearsals in Glencoe with his final Bootycandy performances in Chicago ( actor Edward Mawere has assumed Turner's role of Sutter in Bootycandy through April 15 ). This is also Turner's first time working with Lyons, and he has loved her very detailed approach to the material.
"We spent three or four days at the table just reading the play and really reading the play together," Turner said. "It was some deep, deep textual analysis, which is such a luxury that you don't always get."
Also in the mix for The Mystery of Love and Sex are parental figures. Lia Mortensen and Keith Kupferer respectively play Charlotte's parents Lucinda and Howard ( roles originally played off-Broadway by stars Diane Lane and Tony Shalhoub ), while Jerry Miller plays Howard's father.
"Part of the journey of the piece is that they all make discoveries about themselves and each other," Lyons said. "One of the core questions of the play revolves around, 'What does it mean to own one's identity within a family unit, and can they love each other not just for who they believe who they are and who they are supposed to be?'"
Lyons is also very keen on the fact that in The Mystery of Love and Sex, playwright Doran questions the usual "heteronormative type of relationships" that are in the majority of most dramas dealing with love and romance.
"What we have at the core of our play is actually a profound friendship," Lyons said. "The course of the play is figuring out how this friendship can survive all the twists and turns of life."
"These characters who begin as college kids are certainly questioning everything about themselves. And race and sexuality all have roles in that," Turner said. "All of that is in the mix."
"I do think that the conflict in the play, both internal and external, come from the wrestling with identities," Lyons said. "Charlotte and Jonny have a lot to come to terms with before they can accept themselves and be accepted by their families wholly for who they are."
The Mystery of Love and Sex continues through Sunday, July 2, at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe. Tickets are $35-$80; call 847-242-6000 or visit WritersTheatre.org .