November 18, 2018

Playwright purges painful emotions in ‘Love & Sex’

Back in the 1990s, Bathsheba Doran went to a nightclub where the comedian onstage wasn’t getting much attention from the crowd. “So he said to the audience, ‘What are you, a bunch of lesbians?’ And he got this huge laugh,” recalled the British-born playwright, now 40, who at the time was terrified of coming out as a lesbian. “I just experienced that as a punch in the face. It was the idea that I was just a punch line — that lesbians were unappealing and didn’t have a sense of humor. And so why would you want to be one?”

Doran had had romantic feelings for other girls since she was a small child growing up in a Conservative Jewish community in North London. “But I basically denied them because it seemed to me as a Jew and a woman, I had enough disadvantages to counter,” she said in a telephone interview from her current home in Brooklyn, N.Y., during which she alternated between droll and rueful. “So I would just try to find rationales to deny my sexuality. But it became impossible to survive living that way.”

Doran’s repression became so excruciating that, in her late teens, she experienced “a severe depression that was crippling and frightening,” she said. “I had a nervous breakdown, and I had to fight very hard to survive it.”

Those fraught feelings helped shape her new play, “The Mystery of Love & Sex,” now at the Mark Taper Forum. “Very quickly, it became clear to me that I was going to go back to that point of just total internalized homophobia and fear,” she said.

Set in the American South over a period of five years, the funny yet poignant story revolves around Charlotte (Mae Whitman), who at the play’s opening is a Jewish college student, and her evolving relationship with her parents, as well as her African-American best friend, Jonny (York Walker). During the course of the play, both friends struggle with their nascent homosexuality, as well as how they relate to each other as an African-American and a Jew. Meanwhile, Charlotte’s parents are testing the boundaries of their fraying marriage.

“I’m very interested in the intersection between race and class and sexuality and gender, and these ideas bubble up in the play, as well,” said Doran, who now lives in New York with her wife and their toddler, Hugo, and is currently expecting their second child, another boy.

The play explores the sometimes difficult relationship between Blacks and Jews; when Jonny feels compelled to remind Charlotte’s father, Howard (David Pittu), that African-Americans came to the United States on slave ships, Howard tartly replies that Jews also arrived here on ships — in their case to escape pogroms and death camps. The exchange prompts an exasperated Charlotte to exclaim: “Can we not do the Jewish versus Black thing? You know … who had it worse?”

Doran admits that writing that scene “just sort of made me smile. I understand that there are serious issues underneath it, but there’s something just so preposterous in comparing and trying to prioritize struggle.

“And as a Brit, the comedy of embarrassment is something I really enjoy,” she added. “When you trade in that kind of cringe-making humor, it’s all predicated on this idea of politeness and social awkwardness and what happens if those boundaries are contravened.”

Doran’s Russian and Polish forebears immigrated to England to flee pogroms in the 1880s; as a girl, Bathsheba (known as “Bash” to her friends) attended a Jewish high school and the Jewish socialist youth group Habonim, where actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen was her camp leader. “He was lovely, very charismatic and he helped me with my bat mitzvah portion,” Doran recalled. “I just adored him.”

Even so, Doran experienced anti-Semitism as a girl, especially at her non-Jewish grammar school, where “people drew swastikas on my notebooks and called me a Christ killer,” she said. “I was definitely aware that being English and being Jewish didn’t always feel like the same thing, and I found it troubling.”

Doran felt like an outsider, as well, as a closeted young gay woman in her Jewish community, which, she observed, was quite unwelcoming to a transgender man in its midst. Her parents, who were far more tolerant than others at their synagogue, felt badly for the man and invited him to dinner.

Nevertheless, Doran was severely anxious some years later, when she decided to tell her parents that she had fallen in love with a woman while attending Cambridge University. “I was shaking all over and freaking out that they would throw me out of the house,” she recalled. “My parents turned out to be very supportive, but I could tell that they, like me, were clinging to this idea that I might [only] be bisexual.

“I myself didn’t even understand that I was truly gay until after I had had many girlfriends,” Doran said, sheepishly. “But one day, I went up to my childhood bedroom and above my bed was a poster of Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo. And that was the moment where I was really like, ‘OK, enough already.’ ”

After writing for the British sketch television show “Bruiser” in the 1990s, Doran moved to New York to escape the homophobia and anti-Semitism she had perceived in her native London. She attended Columbia University and Juilliard and went on to make a name for herself penning plays such as 2011’s “Kin” as well as writing for TV shows such as “Boardwalk Empire,” “Smash” and “Masters of Sex.”

But it wasn’t until Hugo, now 3, was several months old that Doran decided to channel her coming-of-age experiences into what would become “The Mystery of Love & Sex.” “I was reflecting upon the fact that my child had two mothers,” she said. “Part of me felt this very politically incorrect sadness, initially. I wondered, ‘Is this ideal for him? Is this something he would have chosen?’ It was just another moment where I thought, ‘My God, I’ve turned out to be a lesbian.’ I suppose the play would become a space where I could allow myself to feel these politically incorrect feelings and acknowledge them.”

Not that Doran approached the project without trepidation about her subject matter — in part stemming from a brutal encounter with a famous 70-year-old playwright when she was 26. As the septuagenarian hit on her and placed his hand on her knee, Doran blurted out that she had a girlfriend. Immediately, the man recoiled and, after confirming that Doran was gay, he snapped: “Well, just don’t write about it.” Doran took his advice for years.

In fact, it would be more than a decade later that she first took on the subject, with “The Mystery of Love & Sex.” “[It] stormed out of me, unstoppable and violent, and I was horrified,” Doran wrote in an essay on the Samuel French website. “The experience was deeply unpleasant emotionally: tears streamed down my face as I stabbed out the dialogue on my keyboard. … Not only was I going through the torture of the writing, I was going through the torture of writing something I was convinced was unproduceable … that is how thoroughly I had absorbed the homophobic wisdom about what is and isn’t acceptable material for a play. I persevered … only because it was obvious to me that the emotions in the play needed to be exorcised from my body.”

But despite Doran’s fears, the artistic director at Lincoln Center Theater in New York offered to produce the play last year, and, Doran said, she was thrilled and gratified when audiences responded well to the show’s themes of love and tolerance.

“It’s been so nice to be able to use my specific circumstances to create a universal theatrical experience, as opposed to feeling the outsider I was always worried about being,” she said.

“The Mystery of Love & Sex” continues through March 20 at the Mark Taper Forum. For tickets and more information, click here.