Emily Townley (Lucinda) and Shayna Blass (Charlotte) in The Mystery of Love & Sex, directed by Stella Powell-Jones, at Signature Theatre.
Emily Townley (Lucinda) and Shayna Blass (Charlotte) in The Mystery of Love & Sex, directed by Stella Powell-Jones, at Signature Theatre.
(© Margot Schulman)

As she promises to do in the title of this delightfully enlightened comedy, Bathsheba Doran visits the mystery of love and sex, but she also explores many other topics, too: romance, religion, marriage, divorce, family, race, parenting, and forgiveness. In its lively Washington, D.C. premiere of the play, Signature Theatre presents what feels like a roller coaster of emotional energy.

The play opens in the dorm room of an unnamed Southern college where friends Charlotte and Jonny entertain Charlotte's mother and father, Lucinda and Howard, with a humble dinner of salad, bread, and wine. When Jonny runs out on a food errand, Charlotte's parents pepper her with questions about the relationship. The friends have known each other since they were children, but her parents want to know what's going on with them now. Is the friendship changing? Does Lucinda love Jonny? Is the feeling mutual? Just when it sounds as though the play may turn into a conventional piece about worried modern parents, Lucinda and Howard leave and Jonny and Charlotte reveal that they have absolutely no idea where their relationship is going.Having grown up together, tthe pair talks frankly to each other about their sexual likes and dislikes, their religious differences (he is a Baptist, she is Jewish), their need for each other, and – inconveniently – their need for other people. This situation — in which neither participant is sure of his or her feelings toward the other or toward his or her own sexual identification — becomes the basis of Charlotte's and Jonny's second relationship, which keeps evolving until the end of the play, when both characters new appreciation of each other comes to light.

Shayna Blass is dynamic as Charlotte, who first believes that she truly loves Jonny and is emotionally determined to make him a physical as well as a psychological partner. Blass makes Charlotte's romantic crushes and escapades credible, using them to demonstrate her determination to find true love sooner rather than later. Xavier Scott Evans is powerful in the complex, ever-evolving role of Jonny, a young African-American who is anxious to find his voice as a writer so he can speak out against the wrongs her sees in the world: primarily racism, sexism, and classism.

Evans begins the play as an insecure young man, his shoulders stooped, his speech halting. He ends the play as a confident, successful writer and teacher who stands tall and is completely self-possessed. Emily Townley is brilliant as Lucinda, a Southern belle who, at the beginning of the play, is a chain smoker trying to break the habit but continually smoking anything she can find. Townley has the majority of the play's hilarious laugh lines and she delivers them with perfect timing. Jeff Still masterfully portrays Howard, a character who had a very complicated relationship with his daughter as she was growing up. As Charlotte puts it, "I wanted unconditional love from my dad." Meanwhile, Howard was totally absorbed writing his mystery novels and couldn't find enough time for her.

Stella Powell-Jones skillfully directs this quick-witted and rapidly moving comedy, where the surprises and revelations come hard and fast. James Kronzer's scenic design creates two spaces: the no-frills dorm room where much of Act 1 takes place and Lucinda and Howard's elegant, white-columned Southern home. Ásta Bennie Hostetter's costumes are a design delight, incorporating everything from contemporary casual college dress for Charlotte to buttoned-down shirts for Jonny to wealthy "hip matron" clothes for Lucinda.

The Mystery of Love & Sex continually shifts focus among the generations and consequently avoids drowning in a singular exploration of young love and insecurity. As it moves through the family's relationships with each other, the play reveals extreme emotional depths in each of the four main characters. Exploring these depths in her lean, compact, and deft writing, Doran exhibits an extraordinary understanding of human nature and its relentless desire for self-knowledge. And Signature Theatre proves itself amply equal to the witty, intelligent writing in this perceptive and refreshing production.