Why Politics Matter

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

If you write a play that's mostly homophobic but end it with a gay marriage, do you get a pass?

That’s the question that I’m left with after seeing Bathsheba Doran's new play at the Taper, The Mystery of Love & Sex.

The play follows the friendship of Charlotte and Jonny. They've been friends since they were nine . They’re neighbors. Charlotte's white and Jonny's black. The play opens with the two in college. They seem to be a couple and they're hosting a dorm room dinner party for Charlotte's parents, Lulu and Howard. There’s nervous talk of marriage. Parental concern about welcoming a black Baptist into a Jewish family. But that's the least of Charlotte and Jonny's problems.

You see, they are both deeply closeted. She's copped to being bisexual but it's all talk. She's terrified by the notion of actually connecting with a woman. He's a devout Baptist virgin who's saving himself for marriage. Together, they're a mess.

In one sense The Mystery of Love & Sex is a coming out drama . . . but it's a hardly celebratory one. Ms. Doran writes a play that's deeply punishing of all her gay characters. There's a ton of self-loathing and punishment and that's fodder for the play's comedy. It’s a funny play but it's the kind of laughter that might leave a bad taste in your mouth.

That's because the politics of the comedy seems at odds with what you might assume is the spirit of the play. Now, it's hard to really connect with the play. From scene to scene, it can't quite figure out what it wants to be. But ultimately, it's a play of recognition.

So why does it matter if the play's politics is in conflict with its spirit?

Well, the playwright, herself, argues that an author's politics matter. One of the play's subplots revolves around Charlotte's dad, Howard, who happens to be a successful writer of detective stories. The trouble is Jonny finds Howard's fiction to be both racist and homophobic and . . . it sounds like he’s right. Jonny does a critique tracking the number of women who are murdered and found naked -- almost all; the number of homosexuals who are "underworld figures" -- again, all of them. His argument -- the politics of the fiction matter.

The irony, intentional or unconscious, is that Ms. Doran falls on her own sword. Her play is guilty of many of the same transgressions she castigates Howard for.

It’s a very opportunistic, not very responsible way of writing. You can choose to do that, but then don’t mock one of your characters for doing the very thing you’re doing.

In the end, what you’re celebrating in The Mystery of Love & Sex is far more traditional than the play would have us think.

The Mystery of Love & Sex plays at the Mark Taper Forum downtown through March 20.

For info on the show and to subscribe to the new weekly KCRW theater newsletter, check out: kcrw.com/theater.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.

Photo: Mae Whitman and York Walker in The Mystery of Love & Sex (Craig Schwartz)