Some play titles make you guess what you're in for. Not "The Mystery of Love & Sex."
The sheer improbability of meaningful connection with another person is daunting enough, says the play's author, Bathsheba Doran, let alone the odds of it deepening into commitment, even marriage. "It's insane," she says, "but we can't stop doing it. Which is kind of lovely."
She puts that philosophy front and center in her play, a drama with a funny bone. The piece had a high-profile premiere at Lincoln Center Theater in New York a year ago with Diane Lane and Tony Shalhoub headlining a cast directed by Sam Gold. In Los Angeles, the play begins previews Feb. 10 at the Mark Taper Forum and opens Feb. 21 with Sharon Lawrence and David Pittu in a cast directed by Robert Egan. Another production is scheduled to open in April at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va.
The back-to-back productions by two of the country's leading regional theaters should further propel Doran, whose most prominent plays until now were "Kin," introduced at New York's Playwrights Horizons in 2011, and "Nest," given its premiere at Signature in 2007. Television watchers also may have seen her work. She was a writer and co-producer for the Showtime drama "Masters of Sex" in 2014, and she wrote for HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" in 2011. One of her "Boardwalk" episodes was nominated for a Writers Guild Award.
"The sky's the limit for her," says Michael Ritchie, the Center Theatre Group's artistic director, who chose "The Mystery of Love & Sex" for the Taper season.
Rehearsal at the Taper had just wrapped for the day as Doran, in town for a week in mid-January to huddle with the cast, sat down to chat. Bash, as she is known to friends and colleagues, is friendly, forthcoming and sincere. She is slightly built, with short, ash-blond hair. At 40, she looks eternally young. London-born, she lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her wife, Katie, a former stage manager, and their 3-year-old son, Hugo. A curve in her clothes reveals her to be pregnant with their second child.
Hugo was just a few months old when Doran began writing "The Mystery of Love & Sex."
"I'm a big believer in the subconscious," she says. "We dream in story form; stories are inside us. So it's really about creating the circumstances to let them out.
"I don't start writing with a conscious agenda or story or even characters. I just go. And I often write pages and pages and pages that tell me nothing about what this play might be, that are discarded until there is a moment where something clicks and I'll realize that the story has begun to present itself to me via the voices of characters."
In this case, the voices belong to a family in the present-day South: 21-year-old Charlotte, her lifelong friend Jonny, and Charlotte's parents, Lucinda and Howard.
Charlotte followed Jonny off to college, and at the start of the story, they are hosting a dinner party in her dorm room for her parents. The gathering doesn't go quite as anyone expected, especially once the parents begin to wonder whether the young people have moved beyond friendship.
"What is the relationship between love and sex?" Doran asks. The play "is exploring a friendship that is trying to figure out whether it should have a sexual dynamic, and it's dealing with a lead character, Charlotte, who is very uncertain about her sexuality."
As Charlotte delves ever more adventurously into those feelings, she sets off a chain reaction in those around her.
Ritchie says the play reflects what's "happening in our country right now. The classic construct of a family is changing, and this play addresses that very directly and in a very humorous way."
André Bishop, Lincoln Center Theater's producing artistic director, credits Doran with "intelligence, social awareness, wit and a deep and tender heart."
The New York reviews, however, were mixed. Joe Dziemianowicz in the New York Daily News said "the story alternately entertains and frustrates," and Jesse Green in New York magazine found the play "engrossing in theory, a botch in practice," but the New York Times' Charles Isherwood said it's "packed with humanity."
Doran credits her family with her early development as a writer. Her parents are Susan Doran, a historian who has written extensively about the Elizabethan era, and Alan, an economist who specializes in the developing world.
"My father read to me a lot, and he did really good voices," the younger Doran says. "It was a huge part of my life.
"I naturally wrote. It was very intuitive, very instinctual — little poems, little plays."
Her parents restricted her access to television and films, but that merely fueled her inquisitiveness.
"We had only about three videos, which I would watch again and again and again, and I would learn something new each time."
A great uncle was managing director of the London Palladium when she was young. "I was given access backstage," she says. "I met actors, and I really fell in love with that world. … I got to see the same show again and again. If you've seen 'Barnum' 23 times, you start to understand how a show is put together."
Doran studied English literature at Cambridge, where she became involved with the Footlights, a hotbed for comedy.
"I knew all these really funny, brilliant people that had come out of that and were now living together in a really dirty flat in London trying to write, and I joined them," she says. "My first professional work was writing for what became their TV shows."
Those colleagues were the writer-performers Robert Webb and David Mitchell. The show was their sketch-comedy program "Bruiser" on BBC Two.
A lifelong fan of the States, Doran landed a Fulbright in 2000 to study at Columbia University, where she fell in love with writing for the theater, then landed a coveted spot in Juilliard's Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program, coached by Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang.
Until now, Southern California has caught just glimpses of Doran's work. South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa commissioned her to write "Ben and the Magic Paintbrush," presented as part of its Theatre for Young Audiences program in 2010, and "Kin" played at little Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills in 2013.
Reflecting on "The Mystery of Love & Sex," Doran says: "I realize now it's no coincidence that this is the play I wrote after my son was born, because I think that by becoming a parent, it allowed me to look on my own childhood from a completely fresh perspective, with a degree of distance and amusement and compassion. … And it also allowed me to look at the experience of being a parent from a completely different perspective."
Another factor: "I had had a rift with a very dear friend of mine. And part of me was so confused that I could feel such intense mourning for a relationship that was not my marriage."
The upshot, she says, is love. "It is a play that explores all different types of love."