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BWW Review: THE MYSTERY OF LOVE AND SEX is Explored at Signature Theatre

There are a variety of mysteries explored in Bathsheba Doran's new play THE MYSTERY OF LOVE AND SEX. The DC-area premiere at Signature Theatre, directed by Stella Powell-Jones, bravely tackles themes of family, identity, and unconditional (and unconventional) love.

Charlotte (Shayna Blass) has been best friends with Jonny (Xavier Scott Evans) since they were nine years old. Now they are in college and as close as ever. Their senior year, they host Charlotte's parents, neurotic detective novelist Howard (Jeff Still) and sassy Southern belle Lucinda (Emily Townley), at school for a modest dorm room dinner. Tension between each of the characters immediately breaks out. The play begins somewhat awkwardly with joke after joke, and at first, it seems to try too hard to be hilarious and modern and millennial. But soon the humor becomes laugh-out-loud and the characters become sympathetic, making for an intelligent romantic comedy.

Howard and Lucinda press Charlotte to define her relationship with Jonny, but for now, she can only express that they are "beyond dating." Later that night, following several glasses of wine, Charlotte tells Jonny that people should study them: a white, Jewish girl and a black, Christian boy with opposite personalities, in a deep and rewarding friendship. In this same conversation, Charlotte reveals she likes - really likes - a girl at school named Claire. But moments later, we see Charlotte strip down as she awkwardly tries and fails to seduce the extremely uncomfortable Jonny, who doesn't want to let anything ruin their friendship.

Blass and Evans are superb in showing the development of this complex friendship from adolescence to adulthood within the play's timeline of five years. Blass is outgoing in her portrayal of Charlotte's open struggle with her sexual desires, while Evans' uneasy posture hints at Jonny's hidden layers of secrets. As the characters discover themselves and become more secure in their individual identities, the actors start to radiate confidence. Smart costume design (Asta Hostetter) aids in this transformation. The best example is Evans going from hunched college student in a lumpy sweater to self-assured young man in tailored casual wear.

Initially, Blass and Evans' chemistry is questionable. Are they even attracted to each other? But this is a question they themselves are trying to answer, so it makes sense in the play's context. This isn't the only question that needs answering, though, as Jonny finally addresses his complicated relationship with Charlotte's father, and Howard and Lucinda struggle with their own failing marriage. It turns out that Charlotte's crush on Claire will not be the most pressing issue for any of the four main characters. Other characters are discussed but never seen onstage, allowing a sharp focus on the story's core relationships.

The characters of Howard and Lucinda could easily have devolved into cliches, but Still and Townley humanize them to the point that they become more than a punchline. Still makes Howard seem like a father you would know (maybe even your own), while Townley is the comedic center of the production, delivering Lucinda's no-filter lines with elegance as she indulges in cigarettes, alcohol, and other vices.

The set designer (James Kronzer), lighting designer (Jesse Belsky), and sound designer (James Bigbee Garver) each get the details right, from the same cheap desk lamp that we all had in college to the sound of Charlotte's iPod being plugged into her speakers.

In its many plot twists, THE MYSTERY OF LOVE AND SEX balances the harshness of reality with hearty doses of humor. This ingenious balance means the story and its ending remain unpredictable. Some of the drama is contrived or downright implausible, and the pacing could use tightening, but the turns of events are engrossing enough to compensate for these flaws.

This production of THE MYSTERY OF LOVE AND SEX is at best exhilarating, relatable, deeply human theatre; at the very least, it is a sitcom that's far better than most of what's on television. Either way, it is well worth the ticket price for what it offers.

Running time: approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

THE MYSTERY OF LOVE AND SEX plays through May 8, 2016, at Signature Theatre's MAX Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. Tickets can be purchased on or by calling 703-820-9771.

Photo: From left - Jeff Still as Howard, Shayna Blass as Charlotte, Xavier Scott Evans as Jonny, and Emily Townley as Lucinda; courtesy of Signature Theatre.

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