Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers is a booty call with brains.
Funny, sexy and insightful, Sex with Strangers is a play about hooking up—and the often messy consequences when the afterglow fades—that hooks you with its unpredictable approach to the mind games lovers play, as well as the issues of privacy and identity in the social media age.
Signature’s production snaps and sizzles with lust and ego under the direction of Aaron Posner, who balances this skirmish between the sexes while toying with your expectations.
Eason’s premise seems at first to favor Olivia (Holly Twyford), a fortyish serious novelist whose brilliant first novel disappeared into obscurity due to a bungled marketing campaign—a chick lit-style cover either misled or turned off readers. She teaches writing and quietly seethes about not getting her due.
Olivia finally summoned up the gumption to finish a new novel and is applying the finishing touches at a writer’s retreat in rural Michigan. Set designer JD Madsen wittily plays on the bookworm theme with a set fashioned from books—floor, walls, furniture—that serves as the retreat common room in the first act and Olivia’s book-strewn apartment in Act Two.
In the middle of a snowstorm, Olivia’s solitude is shattered by the sudden arrival of Ethan (Luigi Sottile), a 20-something hottie who radiates confidence and hubba-hubba.
She’s somebody who subscribes to The New Yorker and swoons over Marguerite Duras and Italo Calvino. Ethan is a hotshot writer whose bestselling books, Sex with Strangers and More Sex with Strangers, were based on a bet with a buddy that he could bed a new girl every week for a year.
The books—by the eponymous Ethan Strange—are based on his raunchy blog about his conquests, which became an Internet and Twitter sensation and offshoot blogs from the women he slept with proliferate. He’s at the retreat to finish the screenplay version of his bestsellers.
They spar, they flirt, they drink wine and then they have sex—lots and lots of yee-hah!, praise-the-lord-and-pass-the-ammunition-style hey-hey that leaves both with foolish grins on their faces the next morning.
What could have been a post-Millennial updating of Same Time, Next Year takes on a darker twist as the two continue to see each other after their wild weekend. Ethan wants to shake Olivia out of her complacent funk and “join the conversation” humming on social media sites and Twitter feeds by offering to re-publish her first novel as an e-book and under a pseudonym. His notoriety in cyberspace is guaranteed to draw attention to her writing.
Ethan’s actions start to bring Olivia the acceptance and recognition she feels she’s deserved all these years. But it’s not a role-reversal of A Star is Born or All About Eve. Ethan’s far too ambitious and protean, Olivia too complex and questioning, for such a facile, “one star fades while another star rises” type of story.
Sex with Strangers brings up generational divides when it comes to privacy and authenticity. “Isn’t there anything you want to keep private?” Olivia asks. “I guess not,” Ethan shrugs, probably wondering why she’s concerned about such a quaint notion in the first place.
Far more tetchy is the issue of identity. Like many Internet denizens, Ethan feels like “Ethan Strange” is a persona, an online character he created to go viral. Even though Ethan Strange has taken a life of his own and gotten his creator rich, Ethan insists that he is not at all like the anal orifice braying in his blog.
SEX WITH STRANGERS
Closes December 7, 2014
4200 Campbell Avenue
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $39 – $105
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Olivia wonders how that could be. Call her old school, but aren’t personas just another side of your personality that you either bring out or hide, but always acknowledge as a part of you? Your shadow side is just as true as the various parts of you that choose to face the sun.
When glints of Ethan Strange bleed into Ethan’s life with Olivia, she cannot help but question “Is he that guy?” He’s on the surface as bouncy and boundary-less as a puppy and Sottile’s virtuosic performance makes him someone you know—the easygoing stud—and someone vexingly unknowable.
Maybe he is “that guy,” or maybe he’s the man who admits “your book made me love you.” Likewise, Olivia’s not a woman you can easily get a handle on. The character, enriched by Twyford’s canny perceptiveness, is a lovably snobbish Luddite who gives the appearance of a neat, prosaic figure, but who roils with lust, jealousy, greed and other unseemly emotions. Nobody does intelligent dithering like Twyford.
Eason’s play isn’t telling. Olivia and Ethan slip in and out of guises with the same ease they slip between the sheets together. The most unsettling aspect of Eason’s play is how powerfully it shows that getting naked has nothing to do with intimacy. Perhaps all of our relationships are sex with strangers, since we can never really know another person. There’s always the chance we will roll over, look at the body next to ours and think “Who are you?”
Sex with Strangers by Laura Eason . Directed by Aaron Posner . Starring Holly Twyford and Luigi Sottile . Scenic Designer: JD Madsen . Lighting Designer: Andrew Cissna . Costume Designer: Katherine Fritz . Sound Designer: James Bigbee Garver . Stage Manager: Julie Meyer . Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
SEX WITH STRANGERS
Closes Dec. 7
Jayne Blanchard . DCTheatreScene a booty call with brains.
Anya van Wagtendonk . DCist Still, for all its complexities, sex is also, you know, fun. With its witty dialogue, playful rhythm and rollicking pace, so is Sex with Strangers.
Patrick Folliard . Washington Blade funny, sexy, serious, thought provoking and enjoyably unpredictable.
Lindsey Clark . Pamela’s Punch Twyford and Sottile are a strong match on stage, and give their characters a tangible, deep connection
Heather Hill . MDTheatreGuide Witty, full of crackling dry humour, amused stabs at generational differences, poetry,
Chris Klimek . City Paper It’s the sexiest show of the year, but you’ll love it for its mind.
Susan Berlin . TalkinBroadway serious yet funny and sexy play
Peter Marks . Washington Post a high-end bodice-ripper — albeit minus the purple prose.
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld strong acting and the timely, provocative, and challenging script
David Siegel . DCMetroTheaterArts an easy crowd-pleaser on its polished comic surface, but, oh what a delicious depth it has!