Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of SEX WITH STRANGERS at TheaterWorks Hartford
Through April 17th
photos by Lanny Nagler
“Some things are better than sex, and some are worse, but there’s nothing exactly like it.” — W. C. Fields
As a writer, when you title a play Sex with Strangers, you have to make sure that the content lives up to the title. When you perform a play with a title like Sex with Strangers, you have to make sure that it delivers – i.e., that it is scintillating, engaging, thought-provoking and, above all, somewhat erotic. Hartford TheaterWorks’ Sex with Strangers delivers on all of these counts and more.
The play, written by hyphenate Laura Eason, is touted as one of the “most-produced plays in the country.” It is wrapped inextricably within the technology and the social media of our times as evidenced by the plethora of current pop media references like downloads, hits, e-books, self-publishing, apps, iPads, etc. There’s even a running joke about using the now-antiquated Windows 97 format. Even the author admits in an interview that she doesn’t “know how this will play in 20 years, but it’s speaking to the moment.” And the play certainly does speak to the moment. Indeed, Ms. Eason has written a significant cautionary tale for our turbulent times.
Olivia, 39, a writer and teacher has secluded herself in a friend’s remote cabin in order to finalize the editing of her new novel. Apparently her first novel did not go as well as it should have due to poor marketing efforts. This has caused her to become somewhat phobic about putting her work out there and being open to criticism. Her solitude and reverie are interrupted by a brash but charming 29-year-old who has talked his way into staying at the cabin as well to finish a screenplay. Ethan Cain (whose pseudonym is Ethan Strange) bumbled his way onto The New York Times Best Seller list with two e-books based on a misogynist blog he started called Sex With Strangers – basically a “porn-without-the pictures” memoir of his sexual escapades with countless women over the years. Despite his fame and success, he yearns for “real” recognition of his literary merit. He has read Olivia’s first novel and, in true stalker fashion, has followed her to the cabin to get to know her. Without giving anything away, they do end up having sex and something akin to a relationship develops. Can true love blossom out of a series of one night stands? Can an older, mature woman have a relationship with young, self-admitted asshole and player? How far is an artist willing to compromise his or her integrity to attain exposure, fame and fortune? The play seeks to answer these and other questions about relationships in our current technology-controlled society.
TheaterWorks’ Producing Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero did a masterful job directing and evoking the dominant themes in the play: to wit, old vs. new, young vs. old, sex vs. love, art vs. commercialism, men vs. women. Of course, as a producer and director of theatre, I always am interested in how other directors can make a two-character, full-length play engaging. Mr. Ruggiero has done it through brilliant casting, staging and pacing. He cut to the core of the play – passion in all pursuits – and was able to manifest this motif through his insightful direction.
And talk about brilliant casting! Courtney Rackley as Olivia and Patrick Ball as Ethan were simply wonderful. Their chemistry, crisp repartee, passion, and simulated sex held the audience in rapt attention. It is the mission of all actors to achieve truth in their respective roles. When Ethan announced that he was an asshole, you certainly believed him. Nevertheless, Mr. Ball’s effervescent charisma shined through and one could not help but to find him charming and likeable. (Of course, it didn’t hurt that Mr. Ball is a very good-looking actor reminding me of a younger Chris Pine. It also didn’t hurt that he spent a good portion of the play shirtless and in his underwear.) Veteran actress Courtney Rackley was a suitable match for him, bringing a perfect mix of trepidation, insecurity, sensuality, and vulnerability to her role. It was fun to see the arc in her character as she evolves Pygmalion-like from a shy, introverted writer to an established, commercial author. Their standing ovation at the end was well-deserved.
The theme that I particularly enjoyed from an artist’s perspective was how far does one compromise his or her creative vision to gain notoriety and financial success? What is artistic success? Is it fame? Is it money? Is it about the kind of art you create? As Ms. Eason said in an interview, one of the themes is “how much one thinks about one’s art as being a commodity or not.” At some point, every artist must realize that their art is a commodity and that’s why they call it show business and not show art.
Special shout outs must go to Brian Prather for a great set design and Fitz Patton for excellent sound design (I especially liked the Windows 97 opening jingle). Every time a cell phone buzzed on stage, my heart flipped thinking it was mine going off in my pocket.
After the show we were lucky enough to talk to Mr. Ball. When he realized that Pillow Talking was going to do a He said/She Said review of the play, he said to me tongue in cheek, “well of course you are going to agree with my character.” At the risk of this being edited out (my wife and co-reviewer is the editor-in-chief and the boss), as a male, I said, “Absolutely,” proving the overall theme of the play (and in life) that men are from Mars and women are from Venus
One thing is for sure, TheaterWorks’ Sex with Strangers is both art and a very marketable commodity that should not be missed.
Two writers trying to get published in today’s competitive literary world. A set of finely ripped abs. Lots of wanton sex.
While these are the makings of Laura Eason’s evocative and provocative Sex with Strangers, it is far more than just the sum of its parts. My husband/co-reviewer and I had the exceptionally good fortune to see it at TheaterWorks, a unique and chic professional theater company in the heart of Hartford. Sex with Strangers also is an intense psychological playground which makes zeroing in on just a few elements tough for me without turning this into a three-page review. The play speaks to the psychology of such things as May-December romance; male vs. female communication styles and their differing relationship expectations including passion, intimacy, trust, and commitment; the ever-growing challenges of technology and online personas, as well as generational disparity (also called cohort effects) and the sociohistorical impact of such trends. Slap on issues of the two protagonists’ wavering and waffling self-esteem and self-doubt, and you’ve got Sigmund Freud clamoring from the great beyond for the opportunity to sit behind his psychoanalysis couch once again.
Those of us with online presences know how easy it is to create an image. Peruse just about anyone’s Facebook page, Twitter feed, Instagram, Snapchat, or other social media and you’re likely to see their best sides, literally, and only what they want you to see. Beautiful photos of themselves, their partners, fancy meals, and exotic vacations. You’ll also read about their magnificent achievements, wonderful dates, and a slew of other interesting and juicy tidbits. In our explosive digital age, however, that it is a two-edge sword. While our online personas may bolster our self-esteem, giving us a sense of empowerment, they alternatively also can lower our self-esteem as we succumb to negative feedback, or a belief that others may have better lives than we do.
But no matter what, an online presence gives us the chance to be bigger and bolder than we are in real life, hidden behind an illusion of distance and anonymity. We can at times, take it up so many notches, who we really are becomes blurred, even to ourselves. Such is the case in Sex with Strangers.
The play opens on a snowy March night at a Michigan bed and breakfast. Uptight, almost-forty Olivia (played superbly by Courtney Rackley) looks forward to some peace and quiet and the chance to finish editing her manuscript. What she doesn’t anticipate is the arrival of the young, cocky, prepossessing Ethan (Patrick Ball is perfection) in the thick of a blizzard, who hopes to finish writing a screenplay. After awkward introductions follow with the passing back and forth of some rather prickly barbs (and wine) Ethan manages to throw Olivia completely off her game and onto the couch for a few rounds of titillating literary foreplay and ultimately, steamy hot sex.
Ethan, we discover, is something of a self-made man. At 28, he already has been on The New York Times Best Seller list – twice – but he’s not satisfied. His claim to fame was in publishing a compilation of his licentious braggadocio – a year-long blog about his sexual conquests, done on a dare. Olivia is not impressed by the content, and after five years he’s now looking to create something more important; but Ethan has what Olivia has always wanted: a successful book and adoring fans. Her first attempt at publication was not well-received and it has left her stinging, reticent to move forward with a new project.
Initially fueled by passion, as the duo begins to get to know one another, they expose themselves, revealing similarly soft underbellies. But for each, the grass appears greener – until it doesn’t. Who is willing to compromise what to get what he or she wants? Can each offer the other something as they move toward their respective goals? Sex with Strangers shows the dark side of social media; the challenges of achieving success in the cutthroat publishing world; and the vast differences in the ways in which the millennial generation views just about everything today.
Brilliantly led by director Rob Ruggiero, Rackley and Ball’s scorching chemistry is so believable it makes you feel like you’re watching something you shouldn’t be. Ruggiero deftly navigates this dynamic two-character, dialogue-heavy work so that it is always engaging and never feels long. The language is sharp and the characters bounce back and forth between love and hate, sex and conflict, with feeling and friction that is palpably electric.
Rackley’s Olivia is alternatingly bristly, insecure, then weak in the knees like a schoolgirl with a crush. Ball’s Ethan is snarky, self-confident, then exposed, his age and lack of experience an obvious disadvantage when he gives in to impulsivity before good judgment.
And more of the psychology: The age difference between the characters is important; as soon as you think you’ve forgotten about it or that it doesn’t matter, it does. Olivia laughs when Ethan says he isn’t the same guy as he was five years prior – to him, five years is a significant period for growth; to her, it may as well have been five minutes. What each wants at this particular point in their lives is paramount. And while both seek literary success, their individual trajectories are both parallel and crossed.
Technology also is important; more so for Ethan, a classic millennial. I read somewhere that millennials are “confident, connected, and open to change.” But are young people growing up believing that they must create a persona rather than be a person who participates in life as it really is? Technology, however, is not going away – has that become real life today?
Eason’s Sex takes us through all of this and more. As is with all human development, Ethan and Olivia both show transformation and consistency. Life and experience propels them forward toward change, but who they are essentially remains the same.
Bravo to the top-notch set design by Brian Prather, who created a fabulous bed and breakfast, replete with snow-capped evergreens through the picture window, and Olivia’s tony NYC apartment with a to-die-for, jam-packed, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall bookshelf. Shout-outs also for John Lasiter’s lighting and Fitz Patton’s sound. I especially loved the music between scene changes.
As a writer and playwright, I found Sex With Strangers especially alluring. As a Generation X parent and step-parent to seven children who are either millennials or beyond, I see the clear incongruence in our respective world views. No matter what your generation or career interest, however, there is something for everyone in TheaterWorks’ Sex with Strangers. On every level it is phenomenally good theatre.