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‘The Mystery of Love & Sex’ Theater Review: Diane Lane, Tony Shalhoub Hook Up With ‘Masters of Sex’ Writer

Bathsheba Doran gives us not one but two coming-out-of-the-closet storylines

Having written two biographies of gay men, I must confess that I don’t find coming-out-of-the-closet tales very interesting. There’s such a strict formula to the genre: The “I’m bisexual”ruse, the eventful First Time followed by lots of anonymous sex, the admission to family, that family’s rejection followed by some of the family’s acceptance, etc. In recent years, at least on stage, the “out” story line appears to have eclipsed the hetero “how I lost my virginity” version, which peaked with “The Summer of ’42” and has never recovered from the “American Pie” franchise.

Bathsheba Doran, producer-writer of Showtime’s “Masters of Sex,” may feel the need to goose the out-of-the-closet scenario, because in her new play, “The Mystery of Love & Sex,” which opened Monday at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in New York City, she gives us not one but two coming-out stories — and that’s just the first act.

Two college students, Charlotte (Gayle Rankin) and Jonny (Mamoudou Athie), have been friends since child-hood, and appear to be on the verge of living together, maybe even getting married. Being raised as a liberal Jew, she comes out first, and to prove her sincerity, she strips naked in front of Jonny and offers herself to him sexually. It takes Jonny a few more scenes to come out, because he’s an African-American Baptist and his mother would never understand and he’s saving his virginity for his wedding night — with a woman.

We never meet Jonny’s mother. Doran spares us his big “I’m gay” speech to Mom, because she dies offstage, Jonny doesn’t get to tell her, and, of course, he regrets that decision (“she never knew who I was”), which is another staple of the genre. There isn’t much else Doran does spare us, however, including a full-frontal scene with Jonny at Charlotte’s wedding in act two that proves even more embarrassing than Neil Patrick Harris’ “Birdman” strip at the Oscars.

Act two takes place five years later, in the present, which means that the times have changed dramatically: Charlotte is planning her wedding to another woman and the big dilemma is whether she’ll wear a dress or a tux. Charlotte’s accommodating parents are played by Diane Lane, sporting an absurd Southern accent, and Tony Shalhoub, who turns his novelist-character Howard into something resembling a human being, which is the real miracle of “Mystery.”

Charlotte’s parents have divorced during the intermission, Mom is off her meds but still drinking/smoking grass heavily, and while Jonny is openly dating some guy, he appears to have another not-well-kept secret: His college thesis (or maybe it’s just a term paper) on Howard’s detective novels has surfaced on the Internet, and it lambasts his entire oeuvre for being “racist, sexist, and homophobic.”

Howard is beyond livid, understandably, but not so understandable is how he and Jonny reconcile a couple of scenes later. It’s clear that Doran has never had any of her works labeled “racist, sexist, and homophobic,” because there are some things writers just never forgive their critics. It’s just one example of how Doran and director Sam Gold push the characters around on stage, not as people but as mouthpieces for her thoughts on love and sex, which, according to the playwright, have nothing to do with one another. This is a mystery?