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A CurtainUp Review
Sex With Strangers
Although there are a preponderance of provocative, graphically-depicted scenes of intimacy that might make some feel like voyeurs, this play is otherwise not so far removed from the dozens of titillating, insinuating, and playfully romantic comedies that filled Broadway houses during the mid 20th century. As it is all about sex, seduction, deception and role-playing in the burgeoning age of the Internet, iphone, and ipad I suspect it will probably be seen just as dated to the next generation as the afore-mentioned comedies. And that's fine.
Take this ultimately bittersweet, but often funny, slightly turbulent and occasionally torrid romantic story for what it has to say about love and honesty in today's high-tech market place. The plot is simple enough. It's what happens during a raging snow storm between an aggressive young man and a slightly older insecure woman — the only guests at a bed & breakfast/writers retreat in rural Michigan.
Good-looking and brash twenty-eight year old Ethan (Billy Magnussen) has had incredible success, fame and fortune authoring a crude but highly exploitable sex blog called Sex With Strangers. Creating an image of himself as a part real, part fictional Casanova/memoirist in a constant quest to have sex with strangers, he has watched it evolve into a best-selling book with a motion picture deal currently in the works. He has, however, also carved out a public image and persona for himself from which he would like to be both removed and eventually absolved. He is working on a novel presumably to nurture his talents as a writer and to reveal a more mature side of his nature.
Olivia (Anna Gunn) is an attractive, self-effacing thirty-eight year old teacher whose first published novel did not get critical approval or achieve commercial success. As a result she has put her writing career on hold, that is except for the novel that she is currently working on with the help of her former classmate, who, as it turns out, is Ethan's writing teacher. When Ethan reveals that it was through his teacher that he has become one of Olivia's fans, the schism between them begins to close. Despite Olivia's reluctance to let down her guard, she is putty in the hands of the often obnoxious yet undeniably charming Ethan.
Eason, who has written twenty plays and served as Artistic Director of the Tony Award winning Lookingglass Theater, plots a wonderfully funny but also complicated trajectory for these two people who couldn't be less alike or less likely to fall for each other. The persuasive Ethan has used public media and the Internet to his advantage, notwithstanding his taking sexual advantage of countless women simply because he can. He also realizes that he has created a monster that has gotten out of control. Besides himself, he offers the opportunities of the Internet to technically challenged Olivia as a ways and means to getting her next novel published.
The dialogue is not only snappy, sexy, but skillfully revelatory. Both Ethan and Olivia unwittingly and winningly objectify who they are to themselves and who they are to each other in an age in which the Internet indiscriminately encourages and enables people to hide in with their illusions and within their delusions.
Those who saw Magnussen's exuberant Tony-nominated performance as the boy-toy in Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike will enjoy seeing him know and see him once again exhibit his well-toned torso with aplomb. But as Ethan, whose devilish duplicity gets him into dilemma from which he can neither excuse nor escape, Magnussen is revealed, while also posturing, as a first rate actor.
Gunn has done some notable film and stage work and is probably best known for her 2013 Emmy award for Best Supporting Actress in the TV series Breaking Bad. She is terrific here as the modern technology dunce whom we see, in a clever and satisfying twist of the plot, figure out, with Ethan's help and support, how to match her lover's use of the Internet, as well as the world of self-aggrandizing and of self-publishing.
Another Lookingglass Theatre connection can be found with its former founder David Schwimmer who directs keeping the two players reeling between empathy to apathy back to ecstasy. In Act II, the play becomes more focused on Olivia's progress from being an insecure novice to becoming her own promoter, motivated, of course, by Ethan's savvy and self-assurance. How and why their affair hits the skids is dealt with in Act II in Olivia's apartment in Chicago. Designer Andromache Chalfant has designed the handsome and evocative locations in which Ethan and Olivia face up to their deceptions, whether misguided or intentional.
Eason's gift for the garrulous gabbing that goes on between the lovers is craftily tempered to balance the expressively slow and extremely erotic love-making scenes for which Schwimmer should get the credit. The play is primarily a diversion as it seesaws between the reality of uncomplicated passion and the rigorous complexity of careers being set into motion. It offers us an occasion to think seriously and also humorously about the true value of turning ones personal life into a public spectacle. There is also true value to be found in a play that makes you smile when a serious moment is interrupted by an iphone.