The title of Bathsheba Doran’s play, The Mystery of Love and Sex, comes across as somewhat misleading. While there is nudity and a few carnal references, sex isn’t the focus of the script. A more accurate title would be The Mystery of Love and Relationships.
In the American South, lifelong friends, Charlotte (Rachael VanWormer) and Jonny (John W. Wells III) live together in a dorm room. Charlotte thinks she’s bisexual, and questions whether she has romantic feelings for her black confidant. Their relationship changes significantly after a fateful early morning in their campus home.
Doran’s show features equal doses of comedy and drama. Several major scenes mix hilarious exchanges, uncomfortable confrontations and pathos.
Diversionary Theatre’s Artistic Director, Matt M. Morrow, finds the right balance between hysterically funny situations and serious subject matter. His frequent tonal changes are simultaneously quick and organic.
Morrow knows how to incorporate effective use of silence when tensions are high. Lessening the level of dialogue helps add impact to significant revelations.
As in the plot, the visuals create an intimate atmosphere. Indoor scenes on Sean Fanning’s set keep details to a minimum. On the other hand, sequences that take place in Charlotte’s parents’ backyard are more picturesque and expansive.
Although the scenery is incorporated well through the night, a curtain used in the different homes kept shaking in an early performance. Hopefully, the curtain will not cause any distractions during the run.
Musical choices by Blair Nelson almost seem to be commenting on the action taking place onstage. Songs such as “High Hopes,” “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and Lady Gaga’s “Perfect Illusion,” are used in ways that are clever and not heavy-handed.
Four characters are crucial to the plot and each of them go through a major arc. VanWormer and Wells III sympathetically depict truths about life during and after college. Both of them seem comfortable in their own skins, but they are actually not as confident as they appear. Throughout the story, the friends are able to better themselves in ways neither of them expected.
Charlotte’s Jewish father, Howard (Mike Sears) and Southern mom, Lucinda (Marci Anne Wuebben) aren’t quite what they appear either. They first come across as purely comic relief characters who aren’t afraid to speak their minds.
While the tale would still be strong if Howard and Lucinda were just played for laughs, Doran writes several dramatic moments that beautifully flesh out the spouses. Neither progenitor is perfect, but their unconditional love for their daughter shines through. Sears and Wuebben are at their best whenever they interact with VanWormer.
A difficult question asked by Doran is how does a close friendship adjust over time? Charlotte and Jonny start off as inseparable, but their lives change drastically, and this tests the attachment between the pair.
Sexuality and companionship are only two of the topics covered in the evening. Intolerance, faith, death, addiction and equality are themes that are discussed in thoughtful and sharp ways.
Spur-of-the-moment dialogue from Doran can occasionally be brutally honest and harsh. Her sometimes-tense writing actually represents the way people often say cruel things without thinking about consequences.
Even with their flaws, Doran, Morrow and the cast turn the quartet into compassionate and caring human beings. By the time the curtain call arrives, audiences might not want to leave the University Heights theatrical space. The narrative from the playwright is so enjoyable that theatregoers wouldn’t mind learning more about Charlotte, her friends and family.
Morrow’s staging of The Mystery of Love and Sex combines explosive acting, a deep plot and plenty of laughs. Add those elements together, and you get a big winner at Diversionary.