(Wesley Allen as Jonny and Tess Burgler as Charlotte.)
Where’s Bill Nye the Science Guy when you need him? Maybe he could explain how you get four actors on stage talking about sex, with some full frontal nudity, and have absolutely no chemical reaction among any of them.
Granted, there’s plenty of mystery in The Mystery of Love & Sex now at Dobama Theatre. But many of the most compelling mysteries involve the way this production has been put together, and not with the subjects—parenting, racism, young sexual identity, middle-aged angst, Jewish guilt—at hand.
There seems to be a wise and compassionate play at work somewhere in the many complex folds of Bathsheba Doran’s script, but they are often obscured by performances that are neither fully realized by the cast nor well orchestrated by director Shannon Sindelar. The result is a long, episodic play that continually teeters on the brink of feeling genuine and significant, but never quite gets there.
A couple college students, Charlotte and Jonny, have invited her parents over to their digs for dinner. Much is made early on of the unappetizing repast, dry salad and unbuttered bread, and with the low table at which they are forced to dine. It’s just the first of several TV sitcom devices employed by Doran, who has written for TV in the past.
The kids have been platonic friends for years, having grown up together in the same neighborhood. But now their backgrounds seem to have become an obstacle since she’s white and Jewish, he’s black and Baptist (and a virgin), and her parents, Howard and Lucinda, can’t figure out what’s going on.
The character profiles seem hauled up from the shallow and familiar tee-vee comedy well, since Howard is a neurotic, Jewish New York author of detective novels and Lucinda is a somewhat faded Southern belle, with her drawl firmly attached. It’s never clear what these two see in each other, or how they produced a daughter who is so stunningly naïve and insensitive. But there you have it.
While Charlotte tries to figure out who she is, revealing that she has a crush on a girl at school, Jonny is worried about his sick mother and working out his attraction to Jonah, a fellow student. This leads to a lot of chatter about self-acceptance that lacks the underlying twang of serious issues being considered.
Unfortunately, Dobama’s cast of experienced actors can’t unravel this mystery. As Charlotte, the usually adept Tess Burgler seems often at a loss to find her character’s through-line. And some of this may have to do with Wesley Allen, whose cardboard Jonny is bland and flat. Without an interesting foil to react to and interact with, Burgler’s scenes with Allen fail to register a pulse and Doran’s carefully constructed witty lines often just lay there.
The parents fare just slightly better, probably due to the fact they have less stage time. Scott Miller invests Howard with enough Manhattan ‘tude, but the script denies Miller the ability to make this father more than just a generally gruff yet supportive dad. Meanwhile, the talented Heather Anderson Boll seems hamstrung by Lucinda’s southern accent and her character’s contrived patter.
For example, even though Jonny supposedly “grew up” in their home, one doesn’t get any sense of that close bond. Howard and Lucinda seem to treat Jonny like a stranger who wandered in from an adjoining apartment. So when we learn that Jonny wrote a college paper about Howard’s books, ripping them for various insensitivities, it lands with a thud since there’s nothing in the relationship at stake.
In a reach for boldness, Doran has both Charlotte and Jonny go full frontal at different times. In some plays, this would be a riveting moment, but here it just seems a sad and inadequate substitute for the profound character revelations that are missing elsewhere.
Scenic designer Jill Davis hasn’t helped the actors, since the black and white screens that are used as a backdrop for the first scene make it look like the college kids are living in a strip mall Chinese restaurant. Also, since Davis uses the entire stage, the four performers are left to wander about Dobama’s large playing area and try to fill the space, which they can’t. At times, Sindelar has them speaking to each other from far corners which, regrettably, serves as an apt visual metaphor for the gaps in both the script and the production. If only Marcus Dana’s well-designed lighting had been used to carve up the stage and provide the actors a more playable environment.
Even one of the best scenes, when Lucinda and Charlotte share some secrets during a pedicure party, proceeds slowly and obviously. And throughout, the necessary chemistry among these four people is never adequately developed. As Charlotte says to Jonny at one point, “Something inside needs to get out.” Yes, indeed. It’s just a shame that this production fails to accomplish that important job.
The Mystery of Love & Sex
Through October 2 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396.