Sex With Strangers (and people you think you know)

Laura Easton’s play about writing and sex in the eBook age comes to Portland Center Stage

Perhaps it’s fitting—given the audience’s expectations—that the setting of Laura Easton’s play about two writers trapped in a cozy Michigan cottage has a kind of Cinemax-after-dark feel to it. Olivia (Danielle Slavick), a not-quite-40 unsuccessful novelist sits, curled in an armchair, editing a manuscript and swirling a glass of red wine, when in bursts 20-something blogger-turned-celebrity sex writer Ethan (Christopher M. Smith) dripping with melted snow and machismo.

The cast of two, led by director Brandon Woolley, produces a good amount of perspiration, but not much blood or tears. The lack of sentimentality is not accidental, and reinforces the fact that modern relationships can be ratcheted up or smashed into extinction with the push of a send button.

Yet, despite the play’s hyper-modern conceit, the soft-core set up, coupled with the novelty with which Sex with Strangers treats its title theme, gives it an oddly dated feel. Not ancient—more like watching an episode of Friends post-90s. That’s not necessarily a criticism—depending on how you feel about the TV show—but it may be worth noting that the original off-Broadway production was directed by none other than David Schwimmer. Yes, Dr. Ross Geller himself: do with that information what you will. It’s nearly unfathomable now, but in its time, shows like Friends were presenting mainstream audiences with a far more frank depiction of non-monogamous sex than they were accustomed too. But then, whatever innocence-lost we can blame on NBC’s primetime lineup pales by any comparison to that of the Internet age.

So can a stage play with “sex” in the title, a good amount of four letter words, and not-infrequent dry humping, still be considered provocative today?

While Olivia’s general uptightness and reluctance to embrace new realities—literary or otherwise—stand in contrast to Ethan, the deviant source of his fame forces us to confront many inconvenient facts about our day and age. His descriptions of his adventures are not squeamish, nor is he reluctant to proposition the pajama-clad Olivia for a roll in the preverbal plaid throw pillows, but the handling of the actual act is—perhaps unavoidably—awkward. The lights are dimmed and rhythmic tribal music fades in as the actors disrobe. It’s the on-stage equivalent of the phase “making whoopee.”

Ethan and Olivia
Ethan and Olivia

And yet, a full-fledged on-stage act of copulation might have been a tad much. So it may be fairer to blame the age in which it was produced (and any city statutes pertaining to on-stage sex acts), rather than Easton’s script.

Slavick and Smith each give engaging performances. Slavick, in particular, has some of her better moments when she occupies the stage alone, dealing with a complicated set of emotions absent the shape-shifting Ethan character. Smith is good in this capacity, as his true intent forms the basis of the play’s main conundrum: is he the sweet and charming stranger who appears in the night, or his douchey playboy alter-ego, who embodies the proceedings like a third character? Of course, there’s something of a gray area, but it does eventually become apparent that even Ethan, himself, has trouble differentiating the two. Smith’s challenge becomes to outrun and outgun this other Ethan with a barrage of smooth talking and ab muscles—but ultimately these may not be adequate weapons to turn the audience in his favor.

The chemistry between the two is there, but their feelings—like their literary ambitions—feel contingent on just as many forces outside of their control as in it. The consequences associated with their online lives take on more and more water as the play goes on, enough to sink them at seemingly any moment. While Olivia’s novel circulates amongst anonymous vile-spewing, grammar-challenged commenters, leagues of Ethan’s scorned lovers multiply their displeasure throughout the online multiverse. Managing all this hate ultimately leaves the characters with little time for love. Or even sex.

Woolley and Co. succeed in creating a piece that’s a lot of fun and has some worthwhile messaging about the nature of identity in the ever-expanding universe of technological night mirror. The handful of clumsy production choices pertaining to the sex scenes produce, at worst, a few giggles—but in the end, it’s all part of the fun.

Sex With Strangers runs until November 22nd. See link below for more information.

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