Watching Tony Shalhoub and Diane Lane execute a comic take-down of super-liberal parents scrambling to keep ahead of shifting sexual mores is a blissful experience. Trouble is, it’s not entirely clear in Lincoln Center Theater’s world premiere production that scribe Bathsheba Doran intends her new play, “The Mystery of Love & Sex,” to be taken as a comedy. In what looks like a classic case of incompatibility between form and substance, scenes about the droll efforts of these permissive parents to keep up with their daughter’s irregular love life could easily be played in a darker vein.
Helmer Sam Gold seems more or less okay with letting the play follow its nose. So, what begins in a realistic style begins to lose its grip on reality and slips into surreal fantasy as the evening wears on — and on and on. (The material runs out well before the show’s two and-a-half hour lifespan.)
The narrative certainly opens on a comic note, with the amusingly awkward situation when Howard (Shalhoub), a successful author of popular detective novels, and wife Lucinda (Lane), a faded but still-hot Southern beauty, pay a visit to their daughter Charlotte’s (Gayle Rankin) college dorm room, which she shares with Jonny (Mamoudou Athie), her best friend since grammar school.
The scene is a classic study of the generation gap between parents and children, seen here through their respective culinary tastes, with Charlotte and Jonny proudly serving their elders a tasteless salad and dry bread — all additive-free and locally sourced, of course. That tried-and-true rallying cry at socially embarrassing dinners (“Let’s have wine!”) gets Lucinda through the meal, while Shalhoub finds his laughs by taking Howard through the strenuous physical contortions of trying to sit on floor cushions and choke down butter-less bread.
Dinner conversation presents another minefield, since Charlotte’s parents suspect that her relationship with Jonny has gone beyond friendship. God forbid they should pry (that would be so not p.c.), but Howard can’t resist prodding Jonny, who is black, about his intentions.
“Can we not do the black-versus-Jew thing,” Charlotte warns her father, when the kids acknowledge that, yeah, they’re “serious.” Since Jonny practically grew up as a member of this politically progressive family, it’s hard for him to call his possibly future father-in-law a racist. But this shy, studious nerd, who otherwise comes across as pathologically insecure, has the stones to challenge him about the racism, sexism, and general boorishness of his hard-boiled private-eye detective hero. Cut to the quick (“I’m one of the good guys!”), Howard stoops low and needles Jonny about his failure to call his critically ill mother.
Over the course of their college years, Charlotte and Jonny are constantly taking exploratory plunges into the wide, wonderful world of love and friendship, but mainly sex. Drawing on the raw energy of youth, they gorge themselves on a cornucopia of straight sex and gay sex and group sex and bisexual sex — all attachments observed by the scribe with varying degrees of wit. But whatever sexual adventures Charlotte and Jonny happen to pursue, Howard and Lucinda are right behind them — and in some cases, way ahead of them.
Lane and Shalhoub are supremely confident players at this game, and while Howard proves a bit stodgy in his ways, Lane takes Lucinda through some sly character changes that are great fun to watch. But the younger generation hold their end up beautifully. Rankin luxuriates in Charlotte’s quicksilver personality while protecting her vulnerable core, and Athie maintains impressive command of virginal Jonny’s tentative but increasingly bold — and eventually reckless — flights of self-discovery.
But by the second act, all this role-playing has brought everyone to the edge of exhaustion and taken the play beyond believability. We’ve seen these people go through love, friendship, marriage, infidelity, betrayal, divorce, adultery, and so many exotic sexual adventures they’ve lost all character credibility. In fact, they hardly seem human at all — more like paper dolls that are fun to dress up, but tend to fly away in a stiff wind.