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Theater Review: Shaker Bridge Starts Season With Smart Play on Youth



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Charlotte and Jonny have been inseparable since childhood. Now they’re in college: bored and a little lonely, paralyzed with uncertainty at what lies ahead but also in love with the fullness of life and all its promise.

They’re poised to reject everything their parents ever told them, and every expectation their parents ever had for them, but some part of them still clings to family and home and those evenings when they were kids playing in the backyard, staring at the night sky.

Can two people who have been friends for such a long time weather any storm, or will they discover that they’re not as similar, as connected, as they thought they were?

That’s the premise of the play The Mystery of Love and Sex by the English playwright Bathsheba Doran, which is now in a run at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield with a stellar four-person cast. It’s the first of five plays by women being presented this season by the theater.

Artistic Director Bill Coons has spoken in interviews, and writes in the playbill, about his desire to bring parity between male and female playwrights to the company’s productions. This play is a good place to start a season dedicated to the proposition that all playwrights are created equal.

English by birth, Doran now lives in the U.S. and has written for off-Broadway and for the TV series Masters of Sex on Showtime and Boardwalk Empire on HBO.

Set in the South in the present, The Mystery of Love and Sex puts its themes right out there in its title — and they don’t get much bigger than those two.

The great thing about the play is how deftly it subverts our assumptions about where it’s going.

When the play opens, Charlotte (a knock-out Arielle Yoder) and Jonny (a bashful Michael Alan Johnson) are awaiting the arrival of Charlotte’s parents, Lucinda, a Southern bohemian, and Howard, a New York Jew who writes a pulpy, best-selling mystery series that turns out to be replete with racial and gender stereotypes.

On the surface, Lucinda and Howard are thrilled to bits to see Charlotte and Jonny, who have prepared a Spartan meal for the grown-ups because it’s what they can afford.

But as soon as Jonny goes out to get more food for the hungry, perpetually grousing Howard, the parents begin a not-so-subtle interrogation of their daughter.

Are Charlotte and Jonny, who is African-American, still only friends or are they, you know, more? Both parents pride themselves on their enlightened liberalism, but will that stand up to an actual relationship between Charlotte and Jonny? Lucinda seems both taken aback and receptive, but alpha male Howard can’t hide an edge of hostility, which doesn’t go unnoticed by anyone in the room.

Charlotte intimates to her parents that she and Jonny are involved. Later, when she and Jonny are back in Charlotte’s dorm room, they’re both jumpy and talky, especially Charlotte, who’s spinning out her thoughts in an incoherent blue streak. Our expectation is that these two are attracted to each other, and that a seduction will follow.

Well, not quite. In fact, nothing about the picture is what it seems.

Doran’s writing for Charlotte and Jonny is, and feels, true. They’re both smart, sympathetic and also, on occasion, maddening in the way that adolescents are. The more difficult their situations, the more difficult they become, as if bashing through life with sharp elbows is the only way they can cut through all the falsity and hypocrisy of the adults.

Jonny says he wants to interview Howard for a paper he’s writing for English class. Howard’s flattered but also wary. Eventually Jonny does publish something about Howard, but it excoriates Howard for his lazy, paint-by-numbers writing about women and people of color. This provokes a crisis of sorts with Charlotte. And there are all manner of other complications that Doran draws

sympathetically and with poignancy.

Doran is particularly adept at imparting the way Charlotte and Jonny’s emotions turn on a dime, wild, excitable and affectionate one minute, and miserable, uncertain and angry the next. And she has a way of leavening emotionally charged scenes with a sly warmth and humor that, in lesser hands, could settle for the tidy homilies of an After School Special. That Doran also interweaves considerations of gender, race and class, and makes them feel natural, rather than forced, speaks to her abilities as a playwright.

At 2½ hours, give or take, the play does seem a bit long. Where Act I has a rich, unhurried tone and perfect pacing, some of the scenes in Act II seemed to be over nearly as soon as they’d begun, as if we were watching fast edits or dissolves to get us through periods of time. It works in film; I’m not sure it works as well on stage. Counterintuitively, the quick, truncated feel of these scenes makes the writing for Act II drag slightly at the end.

Coons has brought together a stellar cast. Katherine Morton and David Bonanno, who have both been in a number of Shaker Bridge productions, are beautifully matched as Lucinda and Howard. Morton has a daffy, free, eccentric quality that softens the judgmental sarcasm of Bonanno’s Howard. Bonanno is terrific at putting across Howard’s abrasiveness, and the gentler side he reserves for his beloved daughter.

Michael Alan Johnson brings a quiet gravitas to Jonny, who is a devout Christian, and sexually inexperienced compared to Charlotte. Johnson is also able to convey Jonny’s tougher, less self-indulgent, more adult mind, which probably has something to do with the fact that he grew up without the advantages Charlotte enjoyed.

Lastly, but not least, Arielle Yoder shines as Charlotte, who is a million things at once: charming, funny, spoiled, caring, thoughtless, mean and charismatic. Yoder seems to inhabit the part fully and unselfconsciously.

One of Coons’ talents as a director is that he makes himself invisible. He doesn’t show off or call attention to himself with obvious directorial stunts. It’s all about the actors and the characters. And in The Mystery of Love and Sex, he’s matched first-rate material with a talented cast.

The Mystery of Love and Sexruns at Shaker Bridge Theatre through Oct. 30. For tickets and information go to shakerbridgetheatre, call 603-448-3750 or email reservations@shakerbridgetheatre.org.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.

Correction

Michael Alan Johnson plays the character of Jonny in the Shaker Bridge Theatre production of The Mystery of Love and Sex.  The phone number for reservations at the theater is 603-448-3750. Johnson's name was incorrect in some parts of a review in Thursday's Valley News, and an incorrect phone number was also listed.