This new two hander by Laura Eason opened July 31st but I was not available to see it during the press previews, so I apologize for reporting to you on it at this late date. Its run has been extended to August 31st, but that doesn’t give you much time to see it at Second Stage Theatre.
Ms. Eason is story editor of the TV series “House of Cards” which is the quality series that keeps writers of her caliber employed. We’re fortunate that she spends her spare time turning out characters for the stage , for Sex With Strangers places two of them, Olivia and Ethan, in contact with each other, and she is adroit at revealing them to us slowly and artfully in her neatly crafted two hour, two act, two hander.
In a dozen scenes, set in a bed and breakfast in rural Michigan, and in Olivia’s apartment in Chicago, this attractive couple, both novelists, are stuck together in a guest house to which Ethan has come during a winter storm to give thought to a new novel he’s preparing to write. Olivia is looking after the place while her friend, who owns it, is away. There are twists and turns and though sex bonds them before the first night is over, their backgrounds, hopes, ambitions and emotional makeup all get trotted out to interfere with smooth sailing.
Ms. Eason’s achievement is that she has created two such appealing characters, they almost instantly involve us in their pleasures and in their frictions as well, and our two hour visit with them, which covers ample stage time for revealed secrets, for surprising contradictions, time enough for two likable and worth knowing individuals to tango and tangle. The result of their engagement concludes correctly; it says at the end, “no, this isn’t the end, this is to be continued .. .. .. ”
The play is brought to life by two delicious performances from Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen. She spent many seasons as Brian Cranston’s wife Skyler White in the very popular “Breaking Bad” series. He had himself a Tony nomination for his splendid work as Sigourney Weaver’s boy toy in last season’s Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike, in which he managed to get laughs and gain sympathy as Spike, who didn’t have much to do except display his buff corpus delecti. But this time out, Mr. Magnussen proves he is a highly original comic actor, whose good looks don’t get in the way of his giving a refreshing performance as a writer whose success with trashy novels has not brought him the fulfillment he thought it would. And Ms. Gunn, looking more trim and certainly more stunning than she did as the rather grim Skyler White, is a leading lady to be reckoned with. In days gone by, when drawing room comedies and dramas were all the rage, she’d have been booked season after season in wise and witty offerings by the likes of S.N. Behrman, Philip Barry, John Van Druten or Master Noel Coward himself. So we owe a debt to Laura Eason for serving these two first rate theatre artists a vehicle that carries them safely home.
David Schwimmer, who wisely refuses to be written off as Ross Geller from his eight or nine years on “Friends”, has once again turned to directing, and he’s kept this battle of the sexes moving fluidly and pointedly. George Abbott, Mike Nichols, Garson Kanin could not have done better with this first rate material. Even Japhy Weideman’s lighting design adds mood and atmosphere to the correctly protean sets by Andromache Chalfant, and one can feel the late nights, early mornings and cold wintry days that help us to know that time is passing.
I think Sex With Strangers will have a long life in the stock and regional theatres of the nation, so keep an eye out for it should it come your way. These two stars are very helpful to it, but their roles are well written and it should be interesting to see what other talents will bring to them. Highly recommended as an introduction to two characters you’ll be happy to get to know.
Sex with Strangers is onstage through August 31, 2014 at the Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street at 8th Ave, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.