It's something you do to get out of the house when you go home for the holidays: a slow drive through an old neighborhood or a stroll across the grounds of the schools you went to. But when the community has changed or the students have left, the exercise leaves a bit of a chill, as empty classrooms, dorms, and houses where you once were recognized and welcomed all disclose the temporary nature of the shelter and the context they once provided. Brrrr, right?
Some relationships are like that. I stumbled across one in Honest Pint Theatre's intriguing production of The Mystery of Love and Sex. Though playwright Bathsheba Doran has called the central liaison between lifelong, college-age friends Charlotte and Jonny a marriage, I cannot agree. From early on, it's evident that their codependent connection is more of a metaphorical dorm room than anything else, a cloistered staging ground where they can work through some issues while studiously avoiding others.
The most troubling part of this arrangement? Only Jonny (Chris Helton) realizes it's transitional. Under Dana Marks's direction, Chloe Oliver portrays the high-strung, emotionally brittle Charlotte, who desperately deludes herself that the pair are life partners despite Jonny's ongoing lack of sexual interest in her—plus, his string of girlfriends, including current one, Monique.
That idée fixe persists even after Charlotte discovers her attraction to a lesbian student. Perhaps that's not so surprising, though, given the nearly childish fascination with which she talks to Jonny about that realization—or her sudden worry, moments later, that it might mean she's gay. Someone so adolescent clearly has no business considering taking on a life partner. Though Charlotte's emotional roller coaster first grabs our attention, Jonny's problems take center stage later on.
A character in Aaron Posner's Life Sucks., which is still running at Manbites Dog Theater this week, speaks eloquently about our fundamental need for unconditional acceptance and love. In Doran's world, too, these things are in short supply. For Charlotte's parents—a grumpy, demanding detective-novel writer named Howard (Mark Filiaci) and a vision of hassled, lapsed Southern aristocracy named Lucinda (Susannah Hough)—and for their relationship with their daughter and Jonny, acceptance of one another can't fully take place until they all accept themselves.
Among this quartet of deep, convincing performances, the only technical note out of place was Helton's tendency to rush his lines in moments of heightened emotional velocity. Though designer Jen Leiner's tree-centered set is lovely, it hardly represents the dorm room where the play's first scenes take place.
Though more than one character speaks out against the tribal dynamics that divide our culture, all four characters struggle with the stasis that can accompany the comforts of the known and the fear of change. The clues are evident, but the mystery remains unsolved until the final moments.