REVIEW: “Sex With Strangers” at Capital Rep

Sex, Books and the Internet

by Barbara Waldinger

In November, 1965 and again in July, 1977, New York City suffered major electricity blackouts.  Nine months after these events, there was a noticeable increase in the birth rate.  Not surprising.  Among other explanations, it seems that when people are cut off from communication from the outside world, they tend to return to nature, seeking intimacy as a way of communicating with each other.

In her play Sex With Strangers, now playing at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, Laura Eason applies this idea to our digital world.  The piece, developed and premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, has enjoyed more than fifty productions in the United States, in addition to others world-wide.  Eason, a writer and producer of House of Cards, the Emmy nominated Netflix series, is an ensemble member and former Artistic Director of Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago (2011 Regional Theatre Tony Award).

In Sex With Strangers, she strands two strangers in a rural Bed and Breakfast in Michigan that doubles as a writers’ retreat, temporarily cut off from the internet by a snowstorm.  Olivia (Jenny Strassburg), a writer-turned-teacher approaching 40, is finishing the proofs of her second novel, which she is too insecure to show anyone due to the failure of her first effort.  Ethan (Ben Williamson), an attractive young man of 28, arrives at the B & B, intending to finish his screenplay, an offshoot of his wildly successful internet blog that describes in detail his multiple sexual escapades over the course of a year.  Ethan, who is used to receiving hundreds of texts each day, is devastated at discovering that his cell phone has no signal, but over the course of several days, he and Olivia discuss their careers and inevitably sleep together.  In the second act the action takes place in Olivia’s Chicago apartment, where the relationship and online book publication plans develop.

Differences in age and morality make Ethan and Olivia an unlikely pair.  Olivia is our guide—we follow her on this journey.  We sympathize when she worries that when their relationship ends, Ethan will denigrate her on his Sex With Strangers blog, just like the other “sluts” he has met.  But Ethan insists he will do no such thing, claiming that the persona on his blog was not actually him, but a made-up character.  He also shamelessly admits having invented and posted some of the more controversial responses to the blog.  Olivia is understandably suspicious, but intrigued, and her attempts to uncover the identity of this young man lead to some surprising reversals.  We are forced to question our assumptions about Ethan and to doubt Olivia’s relative morality.

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Mysteries, secrets and plot reversals propel us onward, but they can be plodding.  In reading Sex With Strangers, we might look for clues, fill in the blanks and delight in finding out that we may have been wrong.  But, despite excellent performances from both Strassburg and Williamson, in production the  play displays certain weaknesses.  For one thing, Williamson is so convincing in his unending seduction and praise of Olivia that it is hard to believe he is anything but sincere; the result is a reduction in what  little tension there was to begin with.  For another, while the written script simply proclaims “sex is imminent,” as scenes end, allowing us to move on to the next scene with no delay, director Stephen Nachamie has his actors engage in foreplay time and again, until the exercise becomes tiresome or worse, laughable.  The audience can be heard murmuring “there they go again.” Finally, we become bored by the repetitiveness of the dialogue on such subjects as the perils and advantages of online publishing, the broken promises not to read each other’s work, and the suspicion that each is being used by the other. There has to be more significant material to fill two hours and fifteen minutes.

One problem is how little we learn about the two characters.  The paucity of details about their writing (we never learn the titles, not to mention the subject matter, of Olivia’s novels), their backgrounds (what and who does Olivia teach?), or the world around them–this is clearly deliberate on Eason’s part, but to what purpose?   Is it to underline how anonymity reigns supreme in our technological age? To demonstrate how easy it is to invent an identity and disseminate fake news? What is at stake here for each character and why should we care?

In contrast to the lack of specifics in the dialogue, the set is absolutely realistic, down to the last detail.  Sebastian Panfili has done a magnificent job of creating both the B & B, with its deer’s head on the wall and falling snow visible outside the windows (thanks to Rob Denton’s projections) and Olivia’s apartment (with equally effective projections of neighboring apartment buildings and greenery outside).  The set change during intermission is like a play in itself– perfectly choreographed, with assistants moving and replacing every piece of furniture in addition to rotating and reversing the walls.  Even the coffee tables in front of the sofas provide surfaces for the actors to sit and lie down—leather in the first act and a fabric ottoman in the second.

Sound designer Scott Stauffer offers evocative music after every scene—sometimes with insistent percussion, at others adding guitars or trumpets or saxophones, depending on the mood. Not to mention the sound of Ethan’s car (and its headlights) and the texts that can be heard on his phone.

Vanessa Leuck’s costumes, especially effective for Strassburg, outline her development from an asexual frump wearing pajamas, glasses, and a bulky sweater to a stunning vision in yellow in the last scene.

Early in the play, Olivia expresses the fear of every artist who sends her work out into the world to be judged:  “how do I make myself hard enough to withstand all the bad but stay soft enough to still be the writer I want to be?  It seems impossible.” There is something so human in this simple question—something we all have to contend with as we try to make our way in life.  If this play had explored the human condition, rather than merely its outward physicality, we might have left feeling more enlightened than when we arrived.

Sex With Strangers runs from September 22—October 15 at Capital Repertory Theatre.  For tickets call 518-445-7469 or online at capitalrep.org.

Capital Repertory Theatre presents Sex With Strangers by Laura Eason.  Cast:  Jenny Strassburg (Olivia); Ben Williamson (Ethan).  Direction:  Stephen Nachamie; Set Design:  Sebastian Panfili; Costume Design: Vanessa Leuck; Lighting/Projection Design:  Rob Denton; Sound Design:  Scott Stauffer; Production Stage Manager:  Melissa Richter.  Running Time:  two hours 15 minutes, including intermission, at Capital Repertory Theatre, 111 N. Pearl St, Albany, NY 12207, from September 22, closing October 15.

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