‘The Mystery of Love and Sex’ skewers 21st-century romance at Signature Theatre

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‘The Mystery of Love and Sex’ skewers 21st-century romance at Signature Theatre
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By Jordan Wright (Photo/Margot Schulman)

As a former BBC comedy writer, award-winning playwright and alumna of Showtime’s TV series “Masters of Sex,” Bathsheba “Bash” Doran can turn a phrase as merrily as she can turn the screw. So it’s no surprise that her tightly crafted dramedy, “The Mystery of Love and Sex,” now playing at Signature Theatre, gifts an audience with two plus hours of solid laughs.

Director Stella Powell-Jones, a veteran of numerous stellar off-Broadway productions, knows precisely where and how to take us on this bumpy ride, affectionately described in the playbill as a “love story.”

In the play, Doran offers up four angst-riddled characters for comedic dissection. Charlotte and Jonny are recent college grads on the cusp of nowhere. That they are best friends since childhood is revealed, but what they struggle with is the question of whether a lifelong friendship translates to a happy marriage.

Charlotte’s parents Lucinda (Emily Townley) and Howard (Jeff Still) hope so, and though their own marriage is on the rocks, they have buckets of encouragement for the young couple, who share everything but a bed.

Powell-Jones takes us on a journey led by stereotypes: a liberal New York Jewish intellectual writer father, Howard, and his genteel southern Christian wife, Lucinda — fondly called “Lulabelle.” As mundane as the pairing seems on the surface, it provides the anchor to a story that takes us far beneath what may be superficially assumed.

Jonny (Xavier Scott Evans), an English literature major, and Charlotte (Shayna Blass) are not your average young couple beaming with the promise of the future and following a predictable path to parenthood. They have issues. Tons, as we soon discover.

Those involve, but are not limited to, race, sexuality, religion and jealousy — all hot topics and even hotter wellsprings for situational comedy. And in this age of torturous self-examination and serial introspection, they are in no way assured a shared future.

In their exploration of an honest relationship, the pair alternately mock and comfort each other, seeking a scapegoat for their insecurities. There’s a moment when Charlotte strips naked and offers herself up to the virginal Jonny. “We are in love, Jonny. We should get married,” she implores.

But Jonny has secrets, and Charlotte is still trying to puzzle out her own. Confessing his newly discovered sexuality to Charlotte, Jonny reveals his dilemma. “It’s like ear wax. It’s in so deep you don’t know it’s there, but it makes everything fuzzy.”

It could prove maudlin, but it assuredly is not, especially as other people’s neuroses provide a sure passage to the funny bone, and dysfunctional families have become comedic fodder for tweaking millennials.

When Howard tries to keep the young couple together despite their differences, he explains to Jonny, “Life is weird. Look at a fish.” Lucinda has her own issues. In trying to combat the stress of her family and quit smoking at the same time, she snaps her fingers and blows into the air — an oft-repeated response delivered in delicious deadpan by Townley.

There are scads of scathing one-liners and enough personality quirks to sentence the lot of them to a lifetime on a psychiatrist’s couch. But those are the funny bits, skillfully delivered by a fantastically confident, gleefully quirky, utterly lovable cast.

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