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On Sex, Detective Fiction, Dinner Parties, and Edward Albee

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Playwright Bathsheba Doran.

Bathsheba Doran’s The Mystery of Love & Sex, which plays the Mark Taper Forum from January 27 through March 6, 2016, begins with a dinner party thrown by two college students, Charlotte and Jonny, for Charlotte’s parents—a party teetering on disaster as Charlotte invites her parents to dine on undressed salad and unbuttered bread while seated Japanese-style on the floor.

“I have a very vivid memory of being an undergraduate and thinking that I had become an adult who could now entertain, and inviting my parents over to what I thought of as a dinner party, and immediately seeing it through their eyes,” said Doran, recounting her simultaneous feelings of disappointment and frustration. “It’s this horrible moment when you think you’ve become an adult—but then get this crushing reminder that you’re not actually there yet.”

It’s this horrible moment when you think you’ve become an adult—but then get this crushing reminder that you’re not actually there yet.

As the dinner continues, Charlotte’s parents are trying to figure out if their daughter and the young African-American man they consider to be part of their family—Charlotte and Jonny are both classmates and childhood friends—are involved romantically. But they don’t want to quite come out and ask, at least at first. Hence the play’s title, and why, in this era of constantly eroding taboos, love and sex remain a mystery to so many of us.

“I think sex is such a big deal because traditionally it’s really been shrouded in secrecy,” said Doran. “It’s a very private experience for the most part, and that’s as it should be. But then because sex so often bleeds into our social and public relationships, things can get really complicated.” She added that everyone from teenagers to ancient philosophers have ruminated on the intersection of love and sex—so why should 21st-century adults be any different?

I think sex is such a big deal because traditionally it’s really been shrouded in secrecy.

“I think we’ve come an incredibly long way, there’s no question, particularly for people whose sexuality was traditionally suppressed,” said Doran, who has also written for the television show Masters of Sex, which follows two sex researchers working in the 1950s and 1960s. “But at the same time, the legacy of that repression has taken a psychological toll that is still evident. And one of the things this play explores is that yes, it’s 2015, and we should all feel great about whatever it is we choose to do. But that is something that’s easier to do politically than to feel personally.”

The conflict between the political and the personal—what we believe to be right and true in the world, and how we act in our private lives—extends to issues of race in The Mystery of Love & Sex. Charlotte and her parents struggle to understand the prejudice Jonny experiences—some of which come from them. “It’s not fair that it’s the same word for fetishism as it is for like…lynching people,” Charlotte says to Jonny. “There should be as many words for racism as the Eskimos have for snow.”

“When you’re in a very personal relationship with an individual, and that relationship takes place largely in the privacy of a room, it’s easy to forget how different things are in the outside world,” said Doran.  Charlotte and her parents “are to a certain extent oblivious to the realities that take place outside that room, and how the realities of being a person of color in America have infiltrated that room.”

There should be as many words for racism as the Eskimos have for snow.

—Charlotte in The Mystery of Love and Sex

Focusing The Mystery of Love & Sex on four-way conversations among Charlotte, Jonny, and Charlotte’s parents was a way for Doran to stay in that room throughout the play. “When you have four people in a room talking, you can explore a tremendous amount of nuance,” said Doran. “Conversation and intentions are so incredibly complicated and at the mercy of unconscious drive as well as conscious intent. It fascinates me to look at how those minute interactions inevitably reflect and refract and also undermine larger societal issues of power.” Such interactions, she said, are “always human”—“deeply flawed but potentially full of hope.”

There is a great American tradition of placing such four-way conversations on stage, and Doran is a great fan of the playwrights who are “the usual suspects. I love Edward Albee in particular,” she said. “He better than anyone sort of catches the underlying hysteria combined with the impulse to love and connect.”

Another playwright who influenced The Mystery of Love & Sex is Eugene O’Neill. Charlotte’s father writes detective novels, and Doran was “thinking of the father in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey into Night” when she wrote him. That father was “trapped in a creative enterprise he didn’t find fulfilling anymore, and at the same time it paid the bills”; Charlotte’s father is the author of 27 Detective Grayson novels.

to what extent do we hold people accountable to that behavior when they themselves are fairly screwed up?

Those novels—and the casual racism and sexism that Jonny finds in them—help create one of the play’s plot twists. I “was also using detective fiction to explore the idea of pop culture,” said Doran. More pervasive than hate speech, if you’re a member of a marginalized group, is “a throwaway line in a sitcom,” or a bad punchline at a comedy show, she said. As a young gay woman, “not out yet and anxious about coming out,” Doran recalled going to a standup club and hearing the comedian warm up the quiet audience by asking, “‘What are you, a bunch of lesbians?’” That line, and the laughter that followed “was like being punched in the face,” she said. “It sent out a whole message—if lesbians are, like, really awful people with no sense of humor, you wouldn’t want to be one.”

Ultimately, [notranlsate]The Mystery of Love & Sex is “about a group of people who love each other very much who also betray each other on a very regular basis,” said Doran. She’s interested in whether we can stop ourselves from committing those betrayals. But even if betrayal is inevitable, “when do we forgive them?” she asks. And “to what extent do we hold people accountable to that behavior when they themselves are fairly screwed up?”

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