The Mystery of

Love & Sex

At the Writers Theatre (Gillian)

By Dan Zeff

Glencoe–“The Mystery of Love & Sex” at the Writers Theatre has only four characters but they go through enough anxiety attacks over sex, personal identity, marital conflict, gender stress, parent-child relationships, and race to occupy a cast of thousands.

          The play begins with teenager Charlotte hosting a meal for her parents, Howard and Lucinda, in her dormitory broom. Also in attendance is Jonny, Charlotte’s bosom friend since childhood who still remains very close, though their relationship somehow hasn’t gravitated to the sexual plateau. Jonny is an African American Baptist. Charlotte and her parents are white. Howard is a blustery New York City Jew, Lucinda is a breezy and boozing Southern gentile. That’s a lot of social, religious, geographical, and ethnic diversity for just four characters.

          The play covers about five years in the lives of the foursome. The thematic motor that drives Bathsheba Doran’s play is sex, in all its manifestations, especially in the personage of Charlotte. She is a conflicted young woman, going through heterosexual, bisexual, and lesbian phases that trigger much robust dialogue, much of it funny, much of it intense to excess.

The characters tend all seem to be living on their nerve ends for most of the evening. Charlotte and Jonny in particular careen through a relationship that ranges from mutual declarations of undying love to a relationship-killing hostility, at least at Charlotte’s end. Howard and Lucinda carry on hostilities of a marital nature, their marriage having begun to unravel shortly after they wed. But they are both literate and intelligent people who have wandered from the paths of happiness and fulfillment in their middle age

The four are likable, though Howard is the least likeable, with his in your face manner that presumably is the hallmark of a New York male Jew. Howard treats Charlotte as Daddy’s girl, which stimulates plenty of harsh exchanges with the other three, especially Jonny, who sees in Howard’s books unmistakable footprints of racism. Howard, of course, is outraged by the imputation and both males finally explode into a wrestling fight.

                                   Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

This cauldron of conflicts does churn up plenty of laughs, especially early in the play, but as Charlotte grows older she gets progressively less cute and comic and more accusatory, all three other characters taking turns in the crosshairs of her hypersensitivity. After a while the play seems to be a roundelay of wars of words as each character sounds off on how the deeds and attitudes of the others have offended. The final scene offers us a tableau of four-way reconciliation among all the principals, but to reach this manipulative happy ending the playwright has put her characters through an overabundance of narrative contrivances and convolutions.

Doran’s play may offer more heat than light but she has still written some wonderfully sharp dialogue. The playwright definitely is in the right business. She has a splendid way with words and she can create scenes crackling with tension. Best of all, she can write roles that actors can really sink their teeth into, and the Writers Theatre, under Marti Lyons’s fluid direction, rises to their opportunities. This is one very well performed play.

The older characters are played by Keith Kupferer (Howard, a successful writer of detective stories) and Lia Mortensen (Lucinda), two thoroughbreds on the Chicagoland theater scene for many years. Kupferer is gruff and unsympathetic for much of his stage time, but Howard is what he is, and Kupferer gives the man a fair hearing as a husband and father who has feelings as easily hurt as those of the others beneath all his curmudgeon exterior. Mortensen has a more audience friendly role, her cynicism and wit masking the inner turmoil of a woman who has not led a happy personal life.

      The adults are pretty much formed in their personalities by the time the action begins. The younger generation is going through all the angst of young people trying to find their sexual identity and generally trying to sort out who they are and where their lives will take them. The Writers has cast a pair of little known (at least to me) performers who both deliver breakout performances of assurance and depth. Hayley Burgess is persuasive in conveying all Charlotte’s shifting sexual phases, growing up before our eyes. If Charlotte’s plate seems overloaded with turmoil, put that on the playwright’s head. Burgess is in full control, physically and vocally. Her character may take herself too seriously to the point of reaching the ”enough already” level of hypersensitivity, but there isn’t a feeling that Burgess doesn’t nail honestly.

                                       Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

Travis Turner is likewise outstanding. His Jonny is an emotional punching bag for both Charlotte and Howard during the play but finally gets the opportunity to stand up against what he perceives as a lack of understanding from the others. He is probably the most sinned against character in the play and his late angry and articulate rebuttals to both Howard and Charlotte are dramatic highlights of the show.

There actually is a fifth character who appears for a few seconds near the conclusion and gets one of the biggest laughs of the night. Jerry Miller proves the adage that there are no small roles for an actor who knows how to milk a moment on the stage.

The production fits snugly in the intimate Gillian Theatre. During scene changes actors and stagehands smoothly shift props on and off the stage. The scenic design by Andrew Boyce, assisted by properties master Scott Dickens, keeps the settings simple but effective. There is also complementary fine work by Samantha C. Jones (costumes), Paul Toben (lighting), and Andrew Hansen (sound).

While “The Mystery of Love & Sex” (an apt rather than exploitive title), was unfolding on stage, I was continuously entertained. It was only on leaving the theater that I decided the play was far more successful in its literate dialogue than in its emotionally overstuffed narrative. But in a season of wonderfully acted new straight plays in Chicagoland theater, this one still stands tall.

                “The Mystery of Love & Sex” runs through July 2 at the Writers Gillian Theatre, 325 Tudor Court. Most performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m, Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m., with several Wednesday matinees at 3 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $80. Call 847 242 6000 or visit

                       The show gets a rating of 3 stars.

                   Contact Dan   April 2017

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