Love, in all its forms, and sex, in all its varieties, are big subjects to explore in a single play, but Bathsheba Doran boldly takes them on in her serious comedy, “The Mystery of Love & Sex.”
Honest Pint Theatre Company’s staging is another success in its string of intimate, adult-themed productions.
Doran, an experienced television writer (“Boardwalk Empire,” “Masters of Sex”), sets up an intriguing plot concerning two best friends, inseparable soulmates since age 9, who are now students at the same Southern college. Quiet, gentlemanly Jonny (Chris Helton) and talkative, exuberant Charlotte (Chloe Oliver) have invited her parents to visit.
Howard and Lucinda are determined to find out what is going on between their daughter and her African-American best buddy. While Jonny is out, Charlotte tells them she loves him and they’re moving in together after graduation.
But things aren’t so straightforward. Charlotte’s got a crush on a female student but also wants to seduce Jonny, who demurs, saying he’s not attracted to her sexually. Charlotte suggests Jonny might be gay because he’s never had sex with a woman, but he says he’s determined to change that with his new girlfriend.
Charlotte and Jonny continue down various paths to find their true selves, causing rifts in their relationship while trying to support each other’s decisions. Complications arise when Charlotte’s parents grapple bravely with her wide-ranging explorations but find their own prejudices and marital problems coming into play.
Doran layers in a dizzying number of social, religious and racial aspects through repeated plot twists and confrontations. Many lose impact because they aren’t all followed through before the next ones pop up. Still, the characters are well-drawn, the punch lines cleverly placed and the situations thought-provoking.
Director Dana Marks gets admirable confidence from her cast. Her precise staging plays out on Jen Leiner’s dreamlike unit set, dominated by a large tree and tire swing, referencing Charlotte and Jonny’s early years together. Aaron Alderman’s atmospheric lighting makes the sheer backdrop hangings glow.
Oliver flounces and fidgets energetically as Charlotte’s cover for various insecurities. Helton projects Jonny’s natural warmth and charm while signaling a troubled soul underneath. Both play their comedic moments with enthusiasm but come into their own with admirable depth in the dramatic segments. Strangely, both speak their comedic lines unnecessarily fast and poorly enunciated, while they deliver their dramatic lines clearly and well-projected.
Experienced pros Susannah Hough and Mark Filiaci, as Charlotte’s parents, demonstrate how enunciation and line delivery help make indelible characterizations. Hough’s Lucinda alternates between soothing sweetness and barbed zingers, delineating a woman who’s been neglected by her husband but still loves him. Filiaci’s Howard is masterful, every phrase and even single words rich with subtle signs of the character’s regrets and delusions but also deep affections.
The play runs long (2 hours, plus intermission) but the production ultimately satisfies through engaging actors and an absorbing script.
What: “The Mystery of Love & Sex,” presented by Honest Pint Theatre Company
Where: North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre, 7713-51 Lead Mine Road, Raleigh
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 3-4 and 10-11; 3 p.m. Nov. 5 and 12
Info: 919-866-0228 or honestpinttheatre.org