Monday, March 9, 2015

Off-Broadway Theater Review: The Mystery of Love and Sex with Tony Shalhoub and Diane Lane

Mamoudou Athie and Tony Shalhoub. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Where Does Friendship End and Love Begin? Or Does It?
By Lauren Yarger
The complexities and dynamics of friendship, love, sex and marriage all get a thorough examination in the latest play from Bathsheba Doran (Kin, TV’s “Boardwalk Empire”) in an Off-Broadway production of The Mystery of Love and Sex at New York’s Lincoln Center, starring Tony Shalhoub and Diane Lane.

Lucinda (Lane) and Howard (Shalhoub) visit their daughter, Charlotte (Gayle Rankin), at college and discover that she and her best friend, Jonny (Mamoudou Athie), are moving in together and that their relationship might be headed toward marriage.

Howard isn’t exactly enthusiastic. It’s not because Jonny is black and his daughter is white. It’s not because his daughter is Jewish and Jonny is a Christian. It’s because Howard has never completely trusted Jonny, despite the fact that he and his daughter have been best friends – since they were 9 – the year Charlotte attempted suicide. It’s more about the boy’s character, Howard, says. The bestselling author just can’t help but ask probing questions like his detective character might, like why doesn’t Jonny visit his dying mother, for example.

“If he’s a contender for son-in-law, I will whip him into shape,” says Howard in a way that contradicts the kind of relationship one would expect when the young man has been like a member of the family for years.

Meanwhile, those murder mysteries and some of Charlotte’s father’s language bring up some character questions about Howard for Jonny himself. Like why are all of the black characters in the books good dancers or prostitutes and why are there descriptions like “shiny, black skin?”

Behind the scenes, however, Jonny and Charlotte love each other desperately – but not the way you think. They are friends. Best friends, who tell each other everything (well, sort of). Charlotte recently has met a “butch” girl on campus and finds herself attracted despite her best efforts to ignore the feeling. Jonny encourages Charlotte to explore and experiment, while the virgin reiterates his vow to save himself for marriage and "something more".

Jonny refers to his strong Baptist faith repeatedly, but I think in the real world you would be hard pressed to find a denomination that would require abstinence, but be OK with homosexuality or drinking. This is just one of the areas where I felt Doran’s script seemed a bit contrived to propel the plot and gives the impression that she’s delving into areas she doesn’t know from the heart. When Howard indicates that he’d be willing to set aside his faith in favor of his daughter’s happiness, for example, it has the ring of the author trying to make a political statement rather than a realistic progression for the character.  His attempts to find her mother’s wedding dress (long ago sold on E-Bay) for Charlotte are a better attempt at bringing home the point of going the extra mile for those we love.

Complicating the relationships is Jonny’s request to interview Howard about his books for his thesis paper. A visit to the family’s home (designed with simplistic genius by Andrew Lieberman – a few props become the various locations as swirls of mottled blue drapes sweep others aside) culminates in real feelings bursting the dam and all of the relationships in danger of being swept away by the current – including Howard’s and Lucinda’s, when she admits she has been seeing someone else.
Later, can the friends be there for each other when Charlotte can’t decide whether to wear a dress or tuxedo pants for her gay marriage or when Jonny breaks off his relationship with a Christian girl when he discovers  that he too is gay? Sigh. Why is it that every Christian depicted on a New York stage has to be a Republican or a repressed homosexual?

Director Sam Gold tightly directs the action (making it come alive on that bare set which gets changed by the actors, some simply using a tote bag for props) and helping Shalhoub and Lane create characters who don’t blur with characters for which we  remember the actors (Shalhoub was TV’s “Monk” and Lane has been in numerous films including “Unfaithful.”)

Lane is very funny as the southern mom, trying to be polite and accepting while fighting a dependence on cigarettes. Shalhoub adeptly navigates serious and comedic elements of Howard’s character to make him likable despite some unlikable traits.

Athie and Rankin are solid in their performances (and naked – the theater suggests this play may not be appropriate for 16 and under) and Bernie Passeltiner has a brief, but very funny moment, as Howard’s father.

The Mystery of Love and Sex plays through April 26 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th St., NYC. Performances are Performances Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Wednesday and Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 3 pm.  Tickets $87; (800) 432-7250.

Christians might also like to know:
-- Nudity
-- Drug use
-- Explicitly sexual dialogue
-- God's name taken in vain
-- Homosexuality
-- Language

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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