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Navigating ‘Love and Sex’ and a Slew of Other Hot Button Issues Off Broadway

“Listen, there’s nothing wrong with changing a name to get ahead,” says Howard, a self-impressed, avuncular Jewish transplant to the south, visiting his daughter and her lifelong best friend, an African-American boy who grew up next door, at college. “Jews have been doing it for centuries. It’s the only way. That is the great advantage. Jews have over black people, right, Jonny? We can pass. Sometimes we get to pass.”

“Right, and not being brought to America on slave ships in chains from Africa,” replies Jonny. He and Charlotte, Howard’s daughter, hosting a dorm-room dinner party for Howard and Lucinda, Charlotte’s mom. “That was also an advantage.”

“Absolutely,” agrees Howard. “Although there were ships. That we got on. Following pogroms. Following death camps.”

It’s an early moment in Bathsheba Doran’s probing and wise “The Mystery of Love & Sex,” now playing at Lincoln Center Theater’s off-Broadway Mitzi E. Newhouse, and it’s a small, clear window into both characters. Howard (played by Tony Shalhoub with a mix of a neurosis, menschiness and pretension) is smart, thoughtful, unsubtle and inconsiderate; Jonny (Mamoudou Athie) is quiet and often diffident, but confident and steely. And theirs is a well-established dynamic: Jonny, we learn soon enough, grew up next door to Howard’s family, fatherless, and these four characters have been enmeshed for nearly the kids’ whole lives.

Doran’s play builds four compelling characters, and she elegantly explores the relationships — the challenges, the ongoing connections — among them as quite a lot changes.

Howard is a New York Jew, a very successful crime novelist, who fell in love at Yale with a nice southern girl and settled comfortably with her in Dixie. (The setting is only identified in the Playbill, and then merely as “the outskirts of major cities in the American south.”) He thinks of himself as one of the good guys — he gives money to the right causes, no doubt — but he’s also, in the way of successful middle-aged white men, largely uninterested in views different from his own. Lucinda (Diane Lane) is his wife, descended from a prominent local family that cut her off after she married Howard, and she has become increasingly resentful of her husband. Jonny grew up with a staunchly religious mother and as an awkward, underperforming outsider; as he grows up and finds himself, he becomes a literature scholar and points out that in Howard’s formulaic books the hero is always a white man, the women are always voluptuous, and the black characters can always dance. And Charlotte (Gayle Rankin), who tried to kill herself at the age of 9, navigates among all of them.

The central, and initially mysterious, relationship in the play is between Charlotte and Jonny, whom we first meet in college. They’re soulmates, they say, but when Charlotte throws herself at him Jonny isn’t interested. It’s because he’s a Christian, he says, but there’s more at play. Soon, Charlotte comes out as lesbian. Eventually, and after his Baptist mother is dead, Jonny comes out as gay. The relationship between Jonny and Howard is nearly as fraught: It is Jonny’s analysis of Howard’s work — on which, it seems, he built his successful academic career — that begins driving a wedge between Jonny and Charlotte and her family, but it is also Howard who realizes that Jonny has a point, and also how important Jonny is to Charlotte and pushes hard, at Charlotte’s wedding, for her to invite the then-estranged old friend. And, amid all this, Lucinda leaves her husband — they’d stopped having sex years ago, we learn — but cannot quite escape his pull.

Among the many remarkable things about Doran’s work is how well she manages to hit on several hot-button current-events topics, gay marriage and the academy’s view of white male authors prominently among them, without descending to piety, lecture, or predictability. She is insightful and tolerant in her depictions of relationships, between friends, between parents and children, between partners, both new and longtime. Her touch is light, but her portrayals are searing.

The cast is uniformly excellent, sensitive and nuanced — up to and including Bernie Passeltiner, who shows up for just a moment as Howard’s estranged and flummoxed but unflappable father. The busy Sam Gold directs, and while he elicits these lovely performances he doesn’t bring his usual flair to the staging, which makes uninteresting use of the Newhouse’s thrust stage.

Still, the power of these characters and their emotions keeps us enveloped. No one is alone, a smart man once wrote, and that’s what “Mystery of Love & Sex” reminds us: We’re all complicated, we’re all changing, but we’re all in it together, and the people close to us are important. In the play’s final moments, in a quiet corner at Charlotte’s wedding—she’s marrying a doctor, and her mother, a for-appearances convert to unobservant Judaism, can’t help kvelling—the play’s four characters reunite and finally accept one another, love one another. They end up all embraced, swaying together to the music wafting in from the reception. It’s moving, not saccharine, and it reminded me of nothing so much as the “four-way hugs” my younger brother and I shared with our parents when we were very, very young.

Jesse Oxfeld has written about theater for New York Magazine and the New York Observer.

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