‘Sex With Strangers,” Laura Eason’s romantic comedy first produced by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater in 2011 and arriving in New York in 2014, is making the rounds of many of our regional theaters, including the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick.
It is a smart, savvy, and enjoyable ultra contemporary two-character study in sex and success. Though there are a few 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.
It is all about sex, seduction, deception, and role-playing in the burgeoning age of the Internet, smart phones, and iPads — all the things that make life these days imponderable for some and enticing, even addictive to others. I suspect it will probably be seen just as dated to the next generation as the afore-mentioned comedies. And that’s fine.
We’ll 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 snowstorm between the only guests — an aggressive young man and a somewhat older insecure woman — at a bed and breakfast/writers retreat in rural Michigan.
It is interesting to note that director David Saint has given the play a little spin that neither changes its perspective nor makes it any more effective — the male is white and the female is black. It works well enough and is neither a distraction nor particularly provocative.
Brash 28-year-old Ethan (Kyle Coffman) has had incredible success, fame, and fortune writing 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.
Ethan has 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. In his own defense Ethan says to Olivia (JoAnna Rhinehart), “I don’t want (“Sex With Strangers”) to be the first thing of mine that you read. I’m glad for what it’s done for me. But until I prove that I’m not just that guy from those books, until I write what I want to write and prove that I deserve to be, you know, people think they know me.”
Olivia is a self-effacing 38-year-old school 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, 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 Ethan’s hands.
Eason, who has written 20 plays and served as artistic director of the regional Tony Award-winning Lookingglass Theater in Chicago, plots a sometimes 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 taking sexual advantage of countless women simply because he can — and realizes that he has created a monster that has gotten out of control. Now 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 snappy, sexy, and skillfully revelatory — with both Ethan and Olivia objectifying themselves and each other in an age when the Internet enables people to hide amid illusions and within delusions.
Coffman, who was in the original cast of “Newsies,” puts a lot of vigor and well-calculated posturing into playing his role. And he gets high marks for making devilish duplicity his primary connection to Ethan. But I could see none of the essential/requisite charm that apparently breaks down Olivia’s defenses.
Rhinehart is closer to the mark playing the modern technology dunce, with a clever and satisfying twist of the plot. Soon enough she figures 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. She makes a good case for her vulnerability but not for the romantic curiosity that presumably drives her into a sexual relationship with the aggressive but somehow too impish seducer.
Director Saint keeps the players reeling between empathy, apathy, and 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 Jason Simms has designed the handsome setting that revolves from the interior of a cozy B&B during a snow storm to Olivia’s Chicago apartment 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 obligatory love-making scenes. A bare ass is all that is needed to earn an audible gasp from the audience at the matinee I attended. Eason’s play is primarily a diversion as it seesaws between the reality of uncomplicated passion and the rigorous complexity of careers being set into motion.
“Sex With Strangers” offers us an occasion to think seriously and also humorously about the true value of turning one’s 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 a smart phone.
Sex With Strangers, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Playhouse, New Brunswick. Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m., and Thursdays at 2 p.m., through Sunday, March 27. $25 to $69. 732-246-7717 or www.GSPonline.org.