Sunday, 19 February 2017

2017: The Mystery of Love & Sex by Bathsheba Doran

The Mystery of Love & Sex by Bathsheba Doran.  Darlinghurst Theatre Company at Eternity Theatre, Sydney, February 10 – March 12, 2017.

Director – Anthony Skuse; Production Designer – Emma Vine; Lighting Designer – Verity Hampson; Sound Designer – Alistair Wallace.

Cast:  Contessa Treffone – Charlotte; Thuso Lekwape – Jonny; Deborah Galanos – Lucinda; Nicholas Papademetriou – Howard.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 19

The Mystery of Love and Sex is a romantic comedy, strictly following the traditional structure of girl meets boy, vicissitudes threaten the relationship, but love conquers all in the end.  With an interesting twist.

We see only four characters on stage. 

 New York Jew, Howard, with all the conventional mannerisms and mother fixation that Jewish men are all supposed to have.  He writes crime fiction for a living, in which the characters he creates break all the modern politically correct attitudes towards women, black people and homosexuals.  Father of Charlotte and subject of literary research by Jonny.
 Southern Belle, Lucinda, mother of Charlotte, who remembers exactly the last time – years ago – when she and Howard had sex, because he broke off part way through having forgotten a phone number to do with his writing career.  She now (Charlotte and Jonny are young adults in college) drinks and smokes, undermines Howard in public and wants to escape.
 Charlotte (white) and Jonny (black) became friends at the age of nine.  We see them at college age, and then in their mid-twenties, when the twist in their story becomes revealed and resolved behind the scenes at the marriage ceremony – in which Charlotte is marrying a woman and Jonny is in a regular relationship with a man.

So Jonny becomes Charlotte’s best man at the wedding, despite all the misunderstandings, including a physical fight between Howard and Jonny, when Jonny’s literary research is published online and reveals the nature of Howard’s fictional characters – implying that Howard is sexist, racist and homophobic.

Does it all work on stage? 

Not entirely for me, but this may be because I have just reviewed another unusual romantic comedy, the new play by David Williamson, Odd Man Out (on this blog February 9, 2017).  He, like Bathsheba Doran, has made his play about an issue of modern concern – the treatment of people with Asperger’s Syndrome – but whereas I could characterise Odd Man Out as an ‘empathetic comedy’ which brought me to tears, of both sympathy and joy in the resolution of the couple’s relationship, I didn’t have this kind of feeling at the end of The Mystery of Love & Sex.

I think Bathsheba Doran wanted me to feel this, about the mistreatment of both Charlotte and Jonny – even from when they were nine and other children rejected them as their sexual orientations became apparent (even if not to themselves until after they had time apart in their twenties).  I think the difference between the plays is in the writing of the dialogue and the intentions of the authors.

Williamson presented the surrounding family and friends of his woman character, Alice, as Doran did for Charlotte, and a stylised form of staging was used in both plays.  Both plays were also performed in small theatres – Eternity and the Ensemble – which made for direct close-up communication with the audiences, and characters in both plays on occasions spoke directly to us in telling the background story.

But Williamson kept our focus tightly on Alice and Ryan, gradually building our understanding of the issue and allowing us to identify strongly with the thoughts and feelings of both throughout the vicissitude phases of the relationship.  We wanted them to find a way to come together, even though when they finally achieved success we knew that the future would never be easy for them.

Charlotte’s and Jonny’s story became split too far into its several elements – Lucinda’s needs as a woman in a conventional heterosexual relationship; Howard’s seeing himself as a victim, being Jewish, similar in his mind to Jonny’s situation as a black man; Jonny’s understandable fear of coming out as a gay man, even to Charlotte when she wanted sex with him; Jonny’s determination to expose truth as an academic; Charlotte’s confusion about her feelings towards Jonny at the same time as feeling attraction and love for other women, as well as her need to be reconciled with her mother and father.

Though there were very funny scenes, especially centred on Howard’s Woody Allen-like constant need to explain everything, and the very cleverly performed nude scenes by Contessa Treffone and Thuso Lekwape, there were other scenes which dropped out of comedy into what we seemed to be expected to take as straight reality.  Howard’s and Jonny’s violence seemed quite outside either of their characters (even though in theory this might be explained by their internalised fears), while the bickering between Lucinda and Howard, for example, turned into a different side-story of their bitterness which also had to be resolved – at least to some degree in a sweet tickling episode between mother and daughter and by Howard's giving his daughter the perfect wedding dress – so that by the end of the play Charlotte's relationships with Lucinda and her father could both end on a positive note.

So the play ends up being too ‘bitty’, and the dialogue too often a kind of display – whereas Williamson kept to a single thread which allowed the dialogue to be felt more deeply.  Doran’s play kept me at a distance, while Williamson’s drew me in.

The symbolism of the off-level set and an upside down tree was right for this out-of-kilter play, and so was the choreographed style of acting.  Though Eternity is a great little theatre, reminiscent of The Q in Queanbeyan, its acoustics struggled a bit with the women’s high-pitched loud Southern accents bouncing around, while at the other end of the scale the soft rounded tones of the self-deprecating gay descendant of slaves – Jonny in much of the first act – could often be hard to follow.

So though I enjoyed the performance and certainly recommend this production and the play for presenting a different take on some of the mysteries of love and sex, perhaps because I am not an American I missed a quieter approach with more depth of humour that could bring out the emotions more fully.  Of course, Bathsheba Doran is not herself American, having grown up and been educated in Britain, but is now based in New York.  So for a different point of view than mine, please read the New York Times review by Charles Isherwood at

© Frank McKone, Canberra

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