When a certain Greek king discovered the truth about his mother, he gouged out his eyes with her brooch. While watching Michael Mitnick’s Sex Lives of Our Parents, at Second Stage Uptown, you might be tempted to keep Virginia, its heroine, away from any pointy baubles. In the weeks before her wedding, she begins to glimpse visions of her mother Charlotte’s past amours, some of them explicit. As Virginia’s friend Elliot aptly comments, “That’s messed up. That’s like, um, Oedipus or Freud or something.”
While priming Virginia (Virginia Kull) for thousands in therapy bills, these visions also cause her to reflect on her own relationship. Yet she and her fiancé, Jeff (Ben Rappaport), are less finely written than Charlotte (Lisa Emery). Mitnick seems to be the rare young playwright more interested in his elders than in his contemporaries. Of course, Charlotte is played by the extremely elegant and resourceful Emery, against whom few young actors, even ones as appealing as Kull and Rappaport, can hold their own. As the play progresses, it seems that it’s Charlotte’s story Mitnick longs to tell; the scenes of Virginia and Jeff’s tussles and maunderings feel increasingly ancillary.
On designer Andromache Chalfant’s stage (stylish, though marred by immensely distracting wallpaper), director Davis McCallum uses music, movement, lighting, and tone to neatly join the present and the past. McCallum is perhaps less well known than other Off-Broadway directors, but he has vast reserves of energy and sympathy, both of which he employs here, treating Mitnick’s play as gravely and as lightly as it deserves. Though much of Sex Lives skates by on a pleasantly frothy surface, McCallum recognizes there’s a serious challenge underneath—an invitation to view our own parents not merely as our progenitors, but as desiring, fleshly adults. Now there’s an uncomfortable image.