Chicago Theatre Review
Nothing is as Constant as Change
Mystery of Love and Sex – Writers Theatre
Bathsheba Doran, a playwright and television writer, especially known for her script writing for “Smash,” HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and Showtime’s “Masters of Sex,” is currently being represented this Spring on a Chicagoland stage. The British-born writer’s latest theatrical work premiered in 2015 at New York’s Lincoln Center, and has been followed by productions all over the country. Now this play has reached Glencoe in a stylishly seductive adult production that’s as funny as it is eye-opening.
Spanning several years of revelation, turmoil and self discovery, this is the episodic story of two lifelong friends. Charlotte and Jonny grew up as neighbors and childhood playmates, sharing the same tire swing that still hangs from a tree limb in the back yard. That beautiful, cubist-styled tree is part of a fluid, yet sparse scenic design by Andrew Boyce that will figure prominently throughout the play.
As this dramatic comedy opens, Charlotte is hosting a simple lunch in her college dormitory room for her parents, Howard and Lucinda. Her best friend Jonny, who also attends the same college and is still Charlotte’s closest friend, is both helping with the meal and eagerly visiting his old friends, who acted as a surrogate family when he was growing up. Howard is a brash, bossy and straightforward man, a prolific author who’s made his fortune writing popular detective stories. Although rather conservative in his beliefs, Howard’s proud of his Jewish heritage. Lucinda, his southern belle wife, converted from Catholism to Judaism when they married. Jonny, a smart, young African-American, has lived his entire life under the care of his single mother, a strict Baptist churchgoer. She’s been suffering from cancer for many years, but has kept her medical regression from Jonny, so as not to worry him.
During this long opening scene we’re provided with volumes of information that’ll carry the audience throughout the rest of the play. After some small talk, the parents can no longer restrain their curiosity. They confront Charlotte and Jonny about the couple’s actual relationship. Although they profess to be liberal, Lucinda, perhaps more than Howard, questions Charlotte’s choices. They’re both, of course, very concerned about their daughter’s future. Is she romantically involved with Jonny? If so, does marriage loom on the horizon? What, then, will their lives become, living as an interracial couple from two very different religious backgrounds? Then the real truths begin to tumble out and Howard and Lucinda learn more about their daughter’s lifestyle and sexual preferences than they’d anticipated.
Doran’s play, because of its rambling, soap opera-like construction, could be another HBO series, simply plunked down onto the stage. Like a peeled onion, each scene reveals new, unexpected information and character changes. By the time theatergoers head out for intermission, they’re almost overwhelmed by how much they’ve experienced. Knowing that another act will follow with, presumably, even more scoops and switches, it’s daunting to imagine what’ll come next. The show is nicely directed here by Chicagoan Marti Lyons. She makes sure the five-year story ambles comfortably without rushing to its ultimate, natural conclusion. She keeps her scene changes and staging, which is alley-style, as simple as possible, without muddying up the story with unnecessary set pieces and props.
Lyons’ cast is uniformly excellent. Although she’s appeared at the Goodman and Steppenwolf, Hayley Burgess makes her auspicious debut at Writers Theatre as Charlotte. She’s gutsy, persuasive and a bit conniving as a young woman who has been struggling with her own sexuality since she was nine years old. When the play opens Charlotte’s in her last year of college and she’s not entirely sure how to solve this mystery of love and sex. Should she follow her instincts and pursue a woman who has caught her eye? Or should she seduce Jonny, the elusive young boy-next-door, who’s been her best friend and constant companion all her life. She and Jonny love each other, but are probably not actually “in love.”
As for Jonny, he’s his own enigma. Played with eagerness, nervous energy and a shy reluctance by the wonderful young Chicago actor, Travis Turner, Jonny continues to be a source of discovery and delight. Continually tormented and tempted by his friend Charlotte, Jonny knows he doesn’t want to simply lose his virginity, for the sake of doing so; he’s also reluctant to sleep with someone he doesn’t plan to spend his entire life loving. But, as a strict Southern Baptist, Jonny has been taught to wait to have sex until his wedding night. Even with all the dates he’s had with women, something just doesn’t feel quite right. Soon Jonny’s making a few confessions and pronouncements of his own concerning his personal life. Also, despite his love and admiration for Howard, almost seeing the man as his surrogate father, the older man seems to harbor some disturbing class arrogance, racism and homophobia that alarms Jonny.
Howard is mettlesome and hot-blooded, played by Keith Kupferer like a pressure cooker on the verge of exploding. A familiar actor to area theatergoers, Keith has been enjoyed in several past productions at Writers, as well as on just about every Chicago stage. Here he plays a highly-opinionated father and husband who’s used to having his say and getting his own way in everything. His daughter’s continual shifts in ideals and her new revelations frustrate and confuse him, as does his tumultuous relationship with Lucinda, his booze-swilling, cigarette-addicted bombshell of a wife.
As Lucinda, Lia Mortensen, one of Chicago’s finest and most exciting actresses, creates the most interesting and captivating character in this production. She’s attractive, bright and breezy. Her dependency on cigarettes and booze makes her character likably amusing, outspoken and easily approachable. Ms. Mortensen creates a sexy, motivated woman who, despite her own problems, sensitively accompanies her daughter on her emotional journey and, along the way, learns a few startling, new things about herself.
Keeping this production intimate was a wise decision. Bathsheba Doran’s latest comic drama could’ve easily been staged with more grandeur and technical hoopla, but Marti Lyons understands that this episodic play is basically a story of the heart. She’s directed her production with a simplicity that focuses on the shifting souls of her characters. It’s a play about people who, like all of us, are continually changing. This two-hour play, which sports nudity, adult language and situations, shows life in a constant state of flux. The story sometimes feels melodramatic, but it’s always engaging and entertaining. Doran proves once again that nothing is as fascinating as the human animal and as constant as change.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 12-July 9 on the Gillian Stage by Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, IL.
Tickets are available by in person at the box office, by calling them at 847-242-6000 or by going to www.writerstheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.