Sex with Strangers
Reviewed by Gray Palmer
Through April 10
In Sex with Strangers, playwright Laura Eason has made a pleasant circuit of distraction, something like a digital-age variation of a Harlequin Romance. Her ingredients: satisfaction of blocked desires; indulgence of passion in an adventure; time apart from the everyday; shame and suspense; then transformation into bittersweet Beauty Victorious. Although this fantasy is about novelists, donʼt expect much literature in the play — these are novelists (one of them a would-be) as pictured in a romance. Itʼs a snack, a modest candy sampler with a variety of fillings.
Ms. Eason makes a good initial calculation with the recipe. Adventure-time begins with Olivia (lovely Rebecca Pidgeon) alone at a snow-bound retreat during spring break. Sheʼs a teacher (nothing about the teacher-precariat in this fantasy; itʼs not a gothic fantasy) evidently spending a week here (plausible — itʼs not a B&B; itʼs some sort of timeshare for creative types) to edit her latest novel which she has no intention of publishing. But why? Why the sadly private art?
Enter Ethan, aka Ethan Strange (Stephen Louis Grush) — Beast! — and the blogger of Internet smut-memoirs that have been collected as a book, Sex with Strangers, and a sequel, More Sex with Strangers, both best-sellers.
Right away: intrusion, disruption, penetration, betrayal, theft (of sorts), and more betrayal. But … but how do prim Olivia and Strange make the nasty so quickly? The Beast lovingly quotes a phrase from Oliviaʼs out-of-print novel to her. I donʼt think he even managed to get out a complete sentence before lip-lock. At which point the lights were dimmed by invisible servants at the Geffen, music swelled, and Olivia and Ethan, disrobing, walked backwards, trying to avoid disk herniation and other injury, toward the nearest bed.
But somehow they manage to get in scenes of the play between sex acts.
The question that drives the play is, “Did she sleep with a nice Beast or a mean Beast? A Beast for good or a Beast for evil?” The venereal shame! And why does he say, “Donʼt look at me! Donʼt look at that part of me!” like Psyche and Cupid? And thereʼs no Internet connection during the snowstorm. So she canʼt Google the crook.
There are other matters, of course: Olivia is older than Ethan; her biological clock is ticking. Ethanʼs memoirs, porn-a-clef or fiction, are truly unsavory, and some of it possibly criminal. Some reviewers and artistic do-gooders have droned on about the “examination of deceptive avatars” or encapsulation of “the technological gulf between Gen X and Gen Y.” Nonsense. Olivia does make objections to connectivity — all pretty much old-fogeyism. Old party, new masks. The other important element of the story is actually career anxiety and the need for recognition. And I have a simple beef with Easonʼs treatment here: success is imagined by both characters under the sign of market-exchange. Youʼre kidding. This is what novelists are thinking about? Ok, ok, right, Harlequin novelists.
Both performers in this two-hander are expert and appealing. We know Ms. Pidgeonʼs work and admire her. Mr. Grush is clever, funny, doesnʼt care if we like him, and thatʼs right on the beam.
The adequate but I think sometimes clumsy direction (I saw the first matinee) is by Kimberly Senior. Set (Sybil Wickersheimer), lighting (Joshua Epstein) and sound (Cricket Myers) were ok. The very good costumes were by Elisa Benzoni.
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood; Tues.–Fri., 8:00 p.m.; Sat., 3:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m.; Sun., 2:00 p.m. & 7:00 p.m.; through April 10. (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.com.