“Sex With Strangers” Is a Steamy, Brainy Brew

Review:  Sex With Strangers

By Perry Tannenbaum

I can’t tell you exactly how many scenes in Sex With Strangers end with heavy petting and preludes to lovemaking, but the number seemed to me sufficient to ensure that playwright Laura Eason wasn’t misleading or overpromising in her title. In case you thought otherwise when you saw this Warehouse Theatre production at Spirit Square, Eason had a hedge.

The title turns out to be the brainchild of one of her characters, author-entrepreneur Ethan Kane, who has parleyed a series of blog posts into a bestselling book and an upcoming movie version that he’s hurrying to complete a screenplay for. Sealing the slick commerciality of his burgeoning franchise, Kane has written them all under the penname of Ethan Strange.

Kane’s serial posts stem from an idea that likely struck him at a bar: to have sex with 50 strange women over the course of a year – and write up each of his conquests in vivid, imaginative detail. Naturally, all of these escapades began, approximately weekly, at a bar. This wheeling-and-dealing serial seducer shows up in a Northern Michigan cabin, ostensibly seeking the peace and quiet needed to finish his screenplay but actually stalking Olivia Lago, who is already occupying this Airbnb retreat in the middle of a fierce winter blizzard.

While the blizzard makes it more difficult for Olivia to turn Ethan away, plowing ahead through it is the first tip-off we get about Ethan’s powerful persistence. Through a mutual friend, he has heard about Olivia’s work as an author and sincerely admires the single book she has published – enough to think that posting her unpublished work on his new website could be a pathway to redeeming himself from his smutty, unsavory past.

Olivia is not nearly as complex. Or adventurous. After her first novel received mixed reviews, she became pathologically discouraged, retreating into teaching and thinking of her more recent writing as a hobby. She balks at the idea of Ethan even seeing her new work, let alone exposing it to the scrutiny of the worldwide web. Ah, but you don’t serially seduce 50 women without possessing charms and attractions, right? And Ethan can also offer literary and Hollywood connections.

Louise Robertson last directed for the Warehouse in 2010, when their production of The Road to Mecca capped the company’s first season at their Cornelius storefront and put them firmly on the Charlotte theatre map. She casts and directs no less adroitly here, calling forth layered performances from Cynthia Farbman Harris and Dominic Weaver. There are numerous types of contrasts and conflicts to mull over in Eason’s script, but perhaps the most precisely nuanced clash is the generation gap. Olivia is older than Ethan, not at all savvy about eBooks and uploading files to Amazon, yet she isn’t so much older that a sexual spark between them cannot quickly ignite.

There are other frictions roiling in their relationship. Ethan’s excess of sexual experience – some of it made up for his posts, some of it callous – and his penchant for publicizing his intimacies make Olivia suspicious. On the other hand, Ethan suspects that Olivia has a condescending attitude toward his writing talents, yielding to him physically only because of what he is giving her professionally. There’s enough manipulation and betrayal on both sides to keep us guessing – and ambivalent about rooting for them as a couple.

Harris isn’t exactly delicate or fragile, so her vulnerability as Olivia isn’t instantly obvious when she lets Ethan enter out of the cold. There is also considerable depth to her artistic discouragement, mixed with a lingering sense of embittering self-worth, that makes her more accessible to Ethan’s physical advances than to his professional outreach. It’s quite a study as Harris more gradually allows Weaver to awaken Olivia’s self-esteem and daring.

Weaver shows us an Ethan who can be viewed as the polar opposite of Olivia: cocky, confident, and articulate on the surface; bitter, brooding, and self-doubting at his core. The best of Weaver emerges when Ethan discovers just how high he has enabled Olivia to fly. But then, I’m a guy. For the women at Duke Energy Theatre, the best of Weaver may well have come across when he ripped off his shirt. Happened more than once.

For the second week of their run, Warehouse returns to their storefront home in Cornelius, where Sex With Strangers might nestle a little more comfortably. At their final Spirit Square performance last Saturday, they ran out of playbills, evidently unprepared for the heavier turnout at the larger venue. Dealing with the larger stage also seemed slightly problematical, with scene changes eating up more clock than I’m accustomed to. Ben Pierce’s lighting design traveled well, but I was less satisfied with his sets. A glance at the playbill was necessary to inform me that, during intermission, we had moved from that Michigan cabin to Olivia’s Chicago apartment. Although the painting we saw in Act 1 had changed, it was hanging in the exact same spot.

Overall, I found it a pleasant surprise to encounter as much brains as body heat in Sex With Strangers. The shoptalk won’t be above the heads of theatergoers decently schooled in lit and mildly attuned to contemporary authors. Those who don’t know that FSG stands for Farrar, Straus and Giroux will at least get that Olivia and Ethan are talking about a prestigious publisher that prints honest-to-goodness hardbound books.

It’s refreshing to see protagonists onstage who still care about such things – to see writers shown as emotional, impulsive, and even hormone-driven. We often are.

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