A two-character play about a random encounter leading to sexual tension and identity/perception distortion? Sounds like it pulls from the Venus in Fur playbook and I’M HERE FOR THAT!
Laura Eason’s Sex With Strangers, now open at Second Stage Theater, is more of an entirely different animal though. Oh sure; it is a fun, little sexy-romp with some on-point dialogue and laughs. Especially the near-impeccable first-act as Olivia, an older author/teacher hiding away from the Internet commentariat, begins to bond at a Michigan hotel with Ethan, an online blogger releasing bestselling books about his hook-ups with women. Watching these two collide and then bone multiple times - we’re talking like Gomez and Morticia Addams level of sexing - is delightful and necessary…I mean, why wouldn’t it be?!
The second act tumbles a bit into melodrama territory as Olivia is forced to confront how she feels about Ethan’s online persona and how it doesn’t match up with the charming gentleman that stands before her (all the while, he pulls some strings to reignite her writing career, complicating the situation further). But Eason impressed me with how thorough she was, tackling topics of online vs. real-life identities, generation x and generation y, hardcover vs. e-book, writing then and now, relationships in the modern age of social media and technology, etc….as a backdrop to a serviceable story in its own right. And it doesn’t get bogged down with its provocative musings.
A credit to David Schwimmer’s ambition, as he makes great use of upstage in creating the Sex With Strangers world. His blocking needs some work - I was seated one off the Orchestra-Left aisle and missed out on most of the nudity action happening upstage left (damn it) - but the stage has a succinct, three-dimensional feel to it watching the characters meander about. And sex scenes can become tasteless if mishandled, but Schwimmer’s hand with pacing never let the ultra-horny duo go the porn route or the fade-to-black transitions tip over into anti-climatic territory (pun not intended).
Although, let’s be frank...when a clothes-lacking Billy Magnussen wants to start with the fucking, we’re all good. Just ask our collective vaginas. Olivia’s pining for Magnussen’s Ethan made perfect sense because LOOK AT HIM.
What, I never claimed to be above objectifying; I was clutching my pearls and fanning my underboob like the best of them. I was seated two rows in front of Joan Rivers and I bet her face moved as the sexcapades ensued.
But to be honest, Magnussen’s performance is far from infallible. His oversexed, late-twenties “bro” with a smartphone in hand was a character that I grew tired of last year towards the end of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. I didn’t need to see it again and while Magnussen works his beautiful ass off (literally, his gym routine must include squats), he kept taking me out of Laura Eason’s world as he unleashes all of his overbearing charisma. He’s jovial, but it felt off-putting and it didn’t work with the character’s image and with the mood of the rest of the show.
Anna Gunn’s more subtle hand at comedy and drama was EXACTLY what the show called for, especially with the show threatening to collapse under Magnussen’s presence. She doesn’t get as many laughs, but I’ll take her less try-hard approach to enlivening up the proceedings any day of the week. Gunn really did some fantastic work as her character is caught up in her sheltered world of hardcover books and outdated laptops, only to have her chance encounter with Ethan shake her out of her complacency. She makes us want to root for her character in every situation she is in - whether it is being sensitive and courted by a young, stud puppy (I mean, if I can’t, she may as well), or when she rebuilds her guard and needs to follow-through on her convictions and see Ethan for who he truly is and isn’t.
There are problems with the show and I did leave the theater disappointed that the second act didn’t match the strong first act. But let it sink in and you may release that Sex with Strangers was fun and kind-of smart. A show that succeeds on either ambition is worth my time, so this little unsung gem is another notch above.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus