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THEATER REVIEW The Mystery of Love & Sex
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2017-04-19

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Playwright: Bathsheba Doran. At: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe. Tickets: 847-242-6000; WritersTheatre.org; $35-$80. Runs through: July 2

Despite its title and a provocative program photo, this contemporary comedy-of-manners concerns sexuality rather than sex. Charlotte and Jonny have been best friends and next-door neighbors since they were nine, in an affluent Southern city. As college roommates they seem destined to marry, yet both have their first sexual experiences ( unseen in the play ) with others and then both come out. Over several years they carve out successful careers ( she/politics, he/academia ), find fulfilling relationships and then have a huge falling-out on the brink of Charlotte's wedding before a final reconciliation.

Charlotte ( Hayley Burgess ) and Jonny ( Travis Turner ) are attractive, bright and glib, but their story is relatively commonplace and wouldn't be very interesting if that's all there were. However, there are complications. For instance, Jonny won't come out as long as his strict Baptist widowed mother ( unseen ) is alive. Far more complicating are Charlotte's parents, Howard ( Keith Kupferer ) and Lucinda ( Lia Mortensen ), he a displaced New York Jew and successful author of detective fiction and she a Southern aristocrat whose family disowned her for marrying "a kike."

Charlotte and Jonny's relationship frequently is seen through the eyes of her parents, who have no qualms about religious differences or the kids' sexuality and apparently are unconcerned that Jonny is Black. He grew up with Charlotte, and Howard regards Jonny as a son. However, Jonny sees things differently. He teaches a course on covert racism with Howard's detective novels as his prime example. When Howard discovers this, his titanic hurt and sense of betrayal break Charlotte's friendship with Jonny. The schism lingers even after Howard and Jonny reconcile. Even more, while the young adults are finding their way in love and sexuality, Howard and Lucinda lose theirs as their marriage dissolves.

Under director Marti Lyons, the production is flawless in an intimate alley staging, with a giant old tree dominating Andrew Boyce's warm, simple-looking set. Kupferer is an assured master of Howard's sarcastic-but-caring persona and Mortensen is slyly salacious as the slow-to-fade southern belle. Burgess and Turner are ever-so-appealing as the clever but self-absorbed youngsters. All four are effectively vulnerable so we can empathize.

But where is my focus supposed to be? I know that Charlotte is the center of the play, or Charlotte and Jonny, but the parents continually pull focus, especially Howard. The only key incident we actually see onstage is Howard's Act II confrontation with Jonny. I'm not certain of playwright Doran's message, but it seems to be that ( a ) friendship is love and love requires friendship and ( b ) friendships must be nurtured to be lasting. I believe most people know these things, which makes this play stylish but not particularly revealing—just as a comedy of manners should be.


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