Laura Eason’s new-ish play Sex with Strangers has been one of the most-produced plays in the English-speaking world in the last four or five years. From a certain perspective, its popularity is easy to explain. It’s what they call a “two-hander” in the business, making it cheap to produce. It’s set in the now, and one of the two characters is a smart, accomplished woman about forty years old, which mirrors the demographic of the majority of theater ticket buyers. And then there’s the eye-catching title, which practically markets itself.
Forgive me, dear reader, if that seems uncharacteristically cynical; perhaps I’ve been overly influenced by the bleak view of humanity that characterizes Eason’s better known work on House of Cards. But although there are things to like about this play (in particular, the easy, sharp dialogue), I’m hard-pressed to discern what it is about this play that has garnered such attention.
It’s certainly not the play’s central conflict – because, for all intents and purposes, there’s scarce much conflict to be seen here. The play opens with promise. It’s a dark and stormy night. (Really). Olivia (Megan Byrne), a 39-year-old writer, is enjoying a quiet glass of wine alone in a bed-and-breakfast-cum-writer’s-retreat in northern Michigan. Her me-time is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of Ethan (Nick Ducassi), a 28-year-old author of a popular blog turned into bestselling book called “Sex with Strangers,” both of which record, in distastefully lurid (and semi-fictionalized) detail, his prodigious sexual encounters with women he picks up in bars. Ethan is a huge fan of Olivia’s first and only published novel – one that failed to sell and quickly went out of print – and although he’s ostensibly come to this B&B to work on a screenplay based on his book, he quickly confesses that he chose this particular retreat because he knew she would be here. Oh, did I mention there’s no internet in this remote, storm-isolated house?
But Eason provides us with this Agatha Christie set-up only to immediately (and deliberately, I assume) undermine our expectations. Absent online entertainment, Ethan comes on to Olivia. She’s game, and they proceed to have a wild & sexy weekend, with no hint of malice afoot. The most contentious thing that happens is that he reads the manuscript of her new novel without her permission; she’s justifiably outraged for a hot minute, but soon he’s got her shirt off again and they’re back in the hay. By the time Ethan leaves for LA at the end of the weekend, he’s managed to convince Olivia to let him digitally re-publish her first novel under an assumed name, to see if she can get the audience she deserves with better marketing. This starts to feel vaguely ominous, but it’s a red herring; Ethan’s offer of help turns out to be a genuine gesture of support. The only moment of real conflict in the first act occurs when, after he’s left, Olivia manages to get an internet signal and googles his blog. Whatever she sees there clearly scares the bejeezus out of her.
But that’s yet another red herring. Post-intermission, the play moves to Chicago, where Olivia is grappling with what she has learned in the meantime about the online Ethan – namely, that he’s exactly what he told her he was, an asshole who exploits women sexually and writes about them in degrading ways. He shows her that her pseudonymously published e-book is getting great reviews, and she quickly succumbs once again to his charms. The play now starts to revolve around her ambition: Ethan helps Olivia get an agent and a publishing deal for her new novel, but when the book deal turns out to be a digital-only publication, he feels betrayed by her refusal to let him publish her work on his app instead. In turn, he takes her book and publishes it without her permission, which destroys their relationship but, in creating a minor publishing scandal, provides her with the publicity that turns her into a bestselling author.
A main reason this play feels so unsatisfying is that it is perpetually deflating its own stakes the moment they are raised. For example, each time Olivia confronts evidence of Ethan’s repugnant alter-ego – as when she overhears him talking to his agent in his rock-star-sex-addict persona – the scene deflects and the confrontation is deferred. As a result, the play seems to hang suspended rather than moving forward. That state of suspension isn’t entirely unpleasant – the characters are engaging and their repartee can be charming – but the evening feels like it takes rather long to meander from the meet-cute dark and stormy night of the first scene to its indecisive final moment.
That said, from a thematic point of view, there are some astute observations here about the digital divide and the redefinition of intimacy and publicity that has come in the wake of the social media juggernaut. The characters have complexity and depth, and there’s subtext aplenty for the actors to work with. You’re never quite sure what truly motivates each character, which I’m guessing forms a large part of this play’s appeal to producers and audiences alike.
The City Theatre production, directed by Christian Parker, serves the play well, with a cleverly transforming (and surprisingly large) set (Tony Ferrieri) and a very fine pair of actors. As Ethan, Nick Ducassi is at ease in the skin of the digital native who finds it unproblematic to be one thing online and another IRL. He lends a tender center to a character who’s a self-professed jerk; Ethan could easily come across as merely a duplicitous player, but Ducassi finds the vulnerability in the character so that rather than hating him in the end, we feel more than a bit sorry for him. As Olivia, Byrne is wry and wary – one of the treats in watching her work is seeing when and where she allows her character to let down her guard. Although I wished at times she might reveal a bit more of the naked ambition that drives Olivia (the script contains hints that Olivia might be playing Ethan in some Machiavellian fashion), she nonetheless keeps present for us the many conflicting desires and needs that motivate this desperate-for-success writer.