Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Theater Review: Sex With Strangers -- TheaterWorks

Courtney Rackley and Patrick Ball 
How Far Are You Willing to Seduce, Be Seduced to Get What You Want?
By Lauren Yarger
Just how well do you know that person with whom you are having sex?

If you are Ethan (Patrick Ball) and Olivia (Courtney Rackley) in Laura Eason’s play Sex With Strangers, the answer could be “not at all,” or maybe “better than you think.” Not at all because they just met at a weekend writer’s bed-and-breakfast getaway in Michigan. Better than you’d think because both are willing to blindly place trust in a complete stranger as well as to take advantage of that trust to advance a career.

When they meet, Olivia is tentatively editing a book she never intends to publish. Discouraged by some positive reviews, but few sales of her first book, she considers herself a hobbyist and doesn’t expect her latest work to be published. Ethan, meanwhile, hasn’t had to look hard to find fame. Ethan's popular blog “Sex With Strangers” chronicles his one-night stands with women – some of whom go out of their way to meet him so they can be mentioned on the site which gets millions of hits.

His fans triggered the notice of a publisher who compiled the posts into NY Times bestsellers and now, Hollywood wants to turn them into a film. There’s just one problem. Ethan doesn’t like his image from a “memoir based on the robotic actions of a drunken asshole” and wants to try something a little more respectable – a website that launches great literary works.

As fate would have it – though it seems the couple’s meeting may not be as serendipitous as he’d like her to think: Ethan and Olivia have a mutual friend who has highly recommended her work. He would love to launch her new manuscript on his site after running installments of her first, little-known book. He is lining up well known authors as well.

The two enter into a bizarre partnership, both professionally and personally (both for no really good reason to the script’s detriment). She allows her first book to be published on the site – all before she even does a google search on Ethan. She also jumps into a sexual relationship with the younger man, then begins to have some doubts about both decisions when she starts to learn about him. What he wrote on his blog about having sex with all those women wasn’t very nice. In fact, it’s rather pornographic and even a little scary when it comes to his treatment of some of the women.

Olivia’s work on the new literary site starts to attract interest and soon she has a coveted offer from a big publishing house for her new book. When he arrives at her Chicago apartment (Brian Prather gives us both nicely appointed sets) Ethan feels betrayed since he is the one who convinced her to put her work out there in the first place and recommended her to his agent. He wonders whether Olivia has been using their relationship all along to further her career, because after all, he doesn’t really know her very well either…

Eason’s goal is to explore how well anyone really knows or can trust anyone, including him or herself. What would you be willing to do if you thought it might benefit your career – and it wouldn’t cost you much emotionally? How well do you need to know someone for them to be able to help turn your life around – for better or worse?

A question, probably unintended, that also comes up is why these two seem so surprised that sleeping with a stranger might not be a good idea and brings unexpected complications. Seems like a no-brainer to me, but I am from an older generation that believes in the benefits of knowing and trusting someone first. These two are an interesting case study, but probably not the ideal pair from whom to draw conclusions about human behavior as they aren’t very smart about most of their choices.

What writer would arrive past deadline at a remote location without internet access to send off his screenplay? What author would agree to let her work be published online without first signing a contract to protect her rights – or at least checking out the publisher’s reputation first? What smart woman refuses to see red flags when a guy has treated other women cruelly and steals from her? Perhaps they are as surprised by their decisions as we are, but it all seems to point toward making a case against having sex with strangers. Can they find a way to be friends?

Rob Ruggiero tightly stages the interactions and tastefully lands on the side of “less is more” when it comes to the couple’s sexual encounters. We see enough to know what is happening and the attraction (though not overwhelming between the actors) driving the relationship between the two without having to be voyeurs. Music and lighting (Sound and Lighting Design by Fitz Patton and John Lasiter, respectively) ease us out of scenes and sexual encounters. Costume designer Amy Clark provides easy-to-get-out-of clothes that also are attractive and help define passage of time.

Sex With Strangers heats up the TheaterWorks stage at 233 Pearl St., Hartford through April 17. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays: 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays: 8 pm; Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 2:30 pm. Tickets $15-$65; 860-527-7838; theaterworkshartford.org.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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