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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Sex With Strangers
Even with Valentine's Day a faded rose-smelling memory, Eason's play is a heart-warming bon-bon, and it's certainly a kick to watch actors Rebecca Pidgeon and Stephen Louis Grush bounce off each other. For full enjoyment, however, attendees of Kimberly Senior's production of Sex with Strangers at the Geffen Playhouse should plan on suspending a storage locker's worth of disbelief. Buying into the premise means accepting a fairy tale.
Olivia is a 39-year-old novelist-turned-teacher holed up at a remote Michigan B& B often frequented by writers. A storm has come in, and Olivia is the only guest present (even the proprietor is away). Up drives Ethan Kane, who made a fortune with his frat boy blog, Sex with Strangers, which he has parlayed into a couple of New York Times bestsellers. The blog chronicles the sexual exploits of Ethan (who is likely based on author/speaker Tucker Max) and his multiple partners who are equally public in their replies. The industry has made Ethan rich and an internet celebrity.
He arrives at this Michigan hideaway not simply because he's facing writer's block on the SWS screenplay, but because a mutual friend introduced him to Olivia's writing. He loves the novel, and is even more strongly attracted to its hot and brainy author. Repulsed though she initially is by this self-described asshole, Olivia is also flattered, and within about 15 minutes, the clothes are shed and she and Ethan are having sweaty, romance novel-esque sex. Conveniently, the internet is down, meaning no diversions.
It gets better. Now that he is 28 and an aspiring novelist himself, Ethan is looking to put his lothario ways behind him and use his earnings for literary good. He is developing an app designed to give exposure to writers. Ethan offers to re-launch Olivia's first book, set her up with his agent, and even publish the second novel that she stashed away in a drawer along with all her literary hopes. Hitching one's wagon to a guy who has boasted digitally of leaving drunk chicks in pools of vomit may be a Mephistopholean bargain, but then again, how can she refuse? Particularly since she is clearly into Ethan as a lover.
Architectural Digest worthy furniture and shelves are piled high with important books all over Sibyl Wickersheimer's set that serves as both the Michigan B & B and, later, Olivia's apartment. The message is clear: Olivia is classier than Ethan. But this tatted-up miscreant with a string of conquests and honey in his voice knows his literature. While he plays a persona, Ethan never lies. When Ethan promises both that he will help Olivia professionally and that he won't mistreat her, Olivia believes him even if the audience knows better. We spend the better part of Sex with Strangers waiting for the inevitable betrayal. When it arrives, it feels perfunctory. But Ethan keeps his promise. Apparently some leopards really can change their spots.
Watching Pidgeon work through Olivia's conundrum is plenty engaging. The star of many a David Mamet play and film, Pidgeon is more buyable when she's in psychological sparring mode with a man than she is as a woman gobsmacked by unexpected attraction. With her perfect diction and worldly air, Pidgeon easily conveys smarts and sophistication. Her chemistry with Grush is warm, occasionally bordering on steamy.
Eason's play is getting numerous productions (including one we just reviewed in New Jerse)y Grush, who originated the role of Ethan in the 2009 Steppenwolf Theatre world premiere of Sex with Strangers nicely balances the character's obvious charisma with his unapologetic swinishness. That we never fully trust Ethan is a testament both to the danger of Grush's performance and to the effectiveness of Eason's premise: never judge a book (or, for that matter, a sex blogger) by its cover.