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The Mystery of Love and Sex by Bathsheba Doran
Sharon Lawrence, York Walker, Mae Whitman and David Pittu in ‘The Mystery of Love and Sex’ by Bathsheba Doran (photo by Craig Schwartz)

The Mystery of Love & Sex

Reviewed by Lovell Estell III

Mark Taper Forum

Through March 10

The sneaky, overworked phrase “friends with benefits” takes on new meaning in this watery comedy by Bathsheba Doran.

Childhood friends Jonny (York Walker) and Charlotte (Mae Whitman), are undergrads shacking up in a college dorm room. When the play begins, they are busy preparing dinner for Charlotte’s parents: Howard, (David Pittu), a successful writer of mystery novels, and Lucinda (Sharon Lawrence), a burned out southern belle, who has retained a bit of charm despite the creep of age and an up-and-down marriage.

The parents are naturally curious about this odd living arrangement, and want to know if there is more to it. Their prodding causes a bit of a stir when they casually allude to the fact that Jonny is black — something the very white Howard jokingly brings up. This theme of racial insensitivity runs throughout the piece, but Doran never confronts this or any other issue in a meaningful or convincing way. The sexually contoured “drama,” that unfolds between Charlotte and Jonny is also never delved into; neither are the revelations about the sexual adventures and misadventures involving all four characters that follow.

Act II fast forwards five years and is driven by an awkward series of plot twists, contrivances and emerging secrets that not only numb the mind but border on the incredible. This show can be likened to a sexually powered Rubik’s Cube, with the four characters (and additional offstage characters who are mentioned but whom we never see), shifting around, trying to find their rightful place.

Doran seems to be trying to make a point (a very blunt one) about identity, the complexities of human sexuality, sexism, and the mettle of true friendship— but her writing is all over the place and lacks both substance and focus.  Not that there aren’t some laughs (there are), but the play loses its punch long before the finale. Performances are good, especially Lawrence, under Robert Egan’s direction.

The Mark Taper Forum, 135 North Grand Ave., downtown; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through March 10. (213) 628-2772 or Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.