In the ancient world, long before modern psychology domesticated sex, Eros was considered a fearful, destabilizing, often ruinous force.
In "The Mystery of Love & Sex," a recent play by Bathsheba Doran that opened Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum, the power of sex to upend the lives of four characters is everywhere on display.
But so too in this dramatic soap opera is the glue that keeps bedroom activity from causing complete anarchy. This would be love, which is less overwhelming than sex but more enduring — even if change is the only constant.
Doran's episodic play spans several tumultuous years and is set in motion by romantic lightning bolts and thunderous breakups. The focus, however, is on the relationships that are permanent fixtures in the life of Charlotte (Mae Whitman, best known for her work on the TV drama "Parenthood").
When we first encounter Charlotte, she's hosting a dinner for her parents, Howard (David Pittu) and Lucinda (Sharon Lawrence), in her dorm room. Helping her prepare this makeshift meal is Jonny (York Walker), her best friend from childhood who has become her closest college companion if not quite her lover.
This overstretched opening scene unveils the dynamics that will play out in a drama that can feel like long-form television, the plot amounting to a series of episodes pasted together to tell the story of a particular family. A playwright who writes regularly for television (her credits include Showtime's "Masters of Sex" and HBO's "Boardwalk Empire"), Doran has an expansive and compelling theme as well as refreshingly complicated characters and a facility for witty dialogue, but her play doesn't earn its protracted stage time.
For all its length, "The Mystery of Love & Sex" seems to me a rather small play about an over-parented young woman who never realizes that there's more at stake in the world than the drama of her sexual identity. Both Charlotte and Jonny have difficulty coming to terms with who they are. But Jonny's particular challenges as an African American church-going Baptist whose virginity may be a cover for the homosexuality he is still trying to deny are ultimately less important to Doran than Charlotte's journey toward full self-acceptance as a Jewish lesbian.
Charlotte's narcissism is unmistakable. She insists that Jonny lose his virginity to her after confessing to him that she has an uncontrollable sexual passion for a woman. When he goes to her house to interview her father, a writer of popular detective novels, for an important college paper, she disrupts the appointment first with her melodramatic hangover and then with the announcement that she's gay.
But neither the play nor the production (directed by Robert Egan) seeks to confront Charlotte, who is as coddled by her playwright as she is by her parents. When she throws up on her father's precious roses after a night of too much drinking, Howard rushes to the rescue of his flowers, yelling at Jonny for not looking after his former unofficial girlfriend, now surrogate sister (no matter that this surrogate sister got trashed after insulting him and his new girlfriend).
Unfortunately, there's no one empowered enough in the play to explain to this spoiled victim that the cracks in her personality have more to do with immaturity and stunted character development than with sexual orientation. (Jonny tries but is drowning in his own issues.) The travails of being gay, real as they are, aren't an excuse for bratty entitlement.
Doran is sympathetic to Jonny's situation. His single mother is sick when the play begins, and his upbringing was far less privileged than Charlotte's. Her well-meaning parents welcomed him as a family member, though Jonny can't help feeling like an outsider. Howard's hypocrisy is apparent early on when, under the assumption that his daughter is heterosexual, he encourages her to date other men and not become too romantically involved with her old buddy from next door whom she followed to college (turning down an acceptance to Yale in the process). The message is that she can do better.
But it is Jonny who, ironically, has to justify himself in the end, not Charlotte — his shortcomings and blind spots are put on trial while hers are lightly passed over. The racial dynamics behind this are underexplored. Doran's myopia in this regard made me uncomfortable, particularly in the final scene when she resorts to naked metaphors to sum up her unwieldy and increasingly contrived drama.
"The Mystery of Love & Sex," which was produced last year by Lincoln Center Theater, is cleanly staged on a bland, practical set by Takeshi Kata. Egan's production follows the smooth rhythm of TV drama, except that the scenes are held for a much longer duration.
Doran has wit to spare, though I found myself resisting quite a few laugh lines that sacrificed character truth for obvious chuckles. The humor is at its best when it moves away from stereotypical observations, though Lawrence, a natural charmer as comfortable on stage as she is on TV ("NYPD Blue," "Grey's Anatomy"), has a field day with Lucinda's Southern ribaldry.
Pittu makes Howard as likable as any actor possible could, but I found the character insufferable all the same. Whitman brings an unforced honesty to Charlotte, so I won't hold against her the grating quality of the voice she adopts for the role. Walker has a few moving moments, though I never found credible Jonny's long-term intimacy with Charlotte and her family.
The sex in "The Mystery of Love & Sex" is banished from the stage, but its influence is continually felt. Love, assailed by erotic pressures, does its best to weather the repeated storms. This mystery isn't new, but it's undeniably theatrical, no matter how problematic the play.
'The Mystery of Love & Sex'
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 20.
Tickets: $25 to $85 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 628-2772, www.centertheatregroup.org