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Sex Lives of Our Parents

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Ben Rappaport and Virginia Kull.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

If you think weddings are nerve-wracking enough as they are, imagine trying to plan one while you're constantly being tormented with mental pictures of your parents having sex! This is the dilemma crippling what should be the happiest time in Virginia's life... maybe. Or could it be instead that it's just what she needed to finally wake up? The inability of Virginia (or anyone else) to definitively tell the difference drives Michael Mitnick's thoughtful but fitful new comedy at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre as part of the Second Stage Theatre Uptown series, Sex Lives of Our Parents.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the first year or so after Virginia (Virginia Kull) met Jeff (Ben Rappaport) seemed perfect, with plenty of talking, taking pictures together, and of course having sex. But all that's changed since he popped the question, and when the pair stays with Virginia's parents, Christopher and Charlotte (Daniel Jenkins and Lisa Emery), in advance of the ceremony, Virginia finds herself become particularly obsessed with who her parents were when they tied the knot—and whether they should really still be together today.

This ushers in those visions, and once they start, they don't stop. It's bad enough Virginia can't shake the barest copulatory details of how mom and dad met, or even the earliest and most amorous years of grandma and grandpa's marriage. But she's also tormented by mom and a neighbor boy playing "glamour photographer" in the bedroom that eventually became Virginia's (ick), by mom and another woman dating (?), and, most perniciously, by mom's hot-and-heavy hanging out with a concert pianist named Lucas (Mark Zeisler) whom mom always insisted never existed in the first place.

What's going on here? Good question. Spend too much time trying to analyze Virginia's thought patterns (or, for that matter, Mitnick's), and you'll drive yourself to insomnia. Why (or more specifically how) Virginia is able to conjure so many narrative demons from her family's past, and (much more importantly) why they are all perfectly accurate down to the slightest nuance, is never explained. That does hobble the play somewhat: If Virginia is naturally gifted a time traveler, why can't she just hop a few years into the future to see if things will work out with Jeff? That would dispel at least one of her central worries right now.

Thankfully, the play is far clearer and smarter when focusing on the emotional implications of all this. Mitnick draws complex parallels between Jeff and Virginia's evolving relationship and that of Virginia's parents. (She's not sure Jeff is right for him; how did dad know? He just did.) And when Jeff's hapless, lisping best friend Elliot (Teddy Bergman) gets drawn into the story—as pretty much the textbook definition of the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time—we're able to see the depths of the rightness and wrongness that are driving all of their lives. And as we discover that certain aspects of Jeff and Virginia's pairing are much more screwed up than Virginia's dreams about her parents getting it on, the play accumulates more insight than its earliest, flighty scenes lead you to anticipate.

The chief communicator of that is Kull, who's marvelous as Virginia: She expertly balances the young woman's inherent optimism with her mounting insecurities, unleashing her frustration in frightening bursts that drive home the story as a series of miniature explosions. Except for Bergman, who's overly dopey as Elliot, the other performers successfully capture the awkward anxiousness of people dealing with different stages of love at different stages of life, and not always finding they have the answers they need.

Director Davis McCallum gives the production a fluid, misty-eyed feel (on an impressionistic dollhouse set by Andromache Chalfant that stylishly captures the mystical mundanities of everyday life) that works right up until the final scene, at which point Mitnick's desire for an untidy resolution allows the tension to peter out rather than build to a completely satisfying conclusion. But while it's moving at its strongest stride, it's a convincing comic look at romances that work, romances that don't, and romances that—for the moment, anyway—are just too close to call.

Sex Lives of Our Parents
Through July 3
McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway at West 76th Street
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