Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Sex with Strangers
Also see Fred's review of Motown the Musical
One senses blizzard as the show opens at a rustic bed and breakfast locale late in March in Michigan. Olivia, thinking she has the place to herself, hears/sees a car. A brash young man bolts through the door. Freezing and hungry, Ethan thinks nothing of making himself at home. The innkeeper isn't around. Boyishly hunky, he finds the thin, fair, light-blonde Olivia more than appealing. She is a writer and he is somewhat acquainted with her work. His blog "Sex with Strangers" has been based upon his sexual conquests with women and, somehow, two ebooks followed, each of which landed on the New York Times Best Seller list. She, on the other hand, is devoted to old-school booksher own and those she, as a teacher, treasures. Her first book was not a critical success. He is in his late twenties and she is about a decade older. (Truth be told, these actors look like they might be three or four years apart in agemaybe.)
Women have complained about Ethan's misogynist rants. He, always on his phone, very much a high-tech guy, is working on an app which he predicts will catapult writers through electronic formats of their work. It will also make him wealthy. Ethan does wish to be more respected. Yet, during the entirety of this play, he is coarse, boastful, and, well, full of himself. He also finds Olivia, sometimes hesitant but unable to resist attraction to his character, quite enticing.
Yes, as blackouts occur at the end of scenes, the actors are in the process of shedding attire and, one imagines, making love. The subsequent moments, as lighting resumes along with Eason's dialogue, provide further certainty. The audience is teased but the scripting stops short of full sexual activity. So much the betterin this case, less is truly more.
The first hour transpires within the confines of the B&B and Olivia considers and wonders about this man. He flies off to Los Angeles, he has had his way with many a womanstill does. She hears him refer to those of her gender as "little sluts." She finds this but not him to be repulsive. The second act, as TheaterWorks crew members work throughout intermission, transforms to Olivia's hip Chicago apartment. She has a multitude of books serving as backdrop to the action and her sofa. Brian Prather's design for each of the locations is spot-on impressive. Amy Clark's outfits for the actors are wise and indicative.
The juxtaposition of print versus electronic media, the quest for success, the hope for literary appreciation all fuel this psychologically riveting production from start to finish. He wants to assist her by promoting her work through his agent and, subsequently, his new app. She is risk-averse, old-school (see her laptop computeranything but in vogue), and wary. Both, stylistic opposites, are smart. Each cares for the other while each wishes for evolving work and respect. The play hooks the reader from Olivia's first phrase which (unless memory fails) is: "Who are you?" The dramatic question is established. Conflict between Olivia and Ethan is instantaneous and repetitive. The credit goes to the author, whose dialogue is consistently expository, and of benefit to TheaterWorks' alluringly stirring production. Eason's final twist and Olivia's final curtain moment mark this play with a mysterious turn.
Sex with Strangers is visual and physical and just tense enough. The actors nail the two characters with precision and they work together exquisitely. Ruggiero pushes the tempo but it never seems rushed. Performers Rackley and Ball have developed a neat knowledge of one another which enables them to sit inside of these characters and relate to one another with maximum fluency. Thus, the play, produced at many theaters this season, is contemporary and realistic. It is a digital age piece that plays fresh and, at TheaterWorks, with vigor and sustenance.
Sex with Strangers continues at TheaterWorks in Hartford, Connecticut, through April 17th, 2016. For tickets, visit theaterworkshartford.org or call (860) 527-7838.