Detroit Public Theatre continues its inaugural season with a brilliant play by Laura Eason, “Sex With Strangers.” It deals with the contemporary conundrum created by social media, in which individuals can earn overnight notoriety, exploit/promote others with exponential consequences, and create digital personas that do not mature along with the actual human being. Moreover, it explores the complicated relationship between two very different people who share a vital, heartfelt dream: to be accepted as a literary author.
Olive (Hallie Bee Bard) is a reclusive writer who self-identifies herself as a teacher who just happens to write for a hobby. We quickly learn, however, that she wrote a remarkable first novel that was greatly admired by the literary set, but that failed to get any traction commercially. She was so emotionally traumatized by the experience – especially by a few ignorant but unkind reviews – that years of therapy have not helped. She has abandoned her dreams of having a novel that stands next to the books of her literary heroes. And even though she is in the process of editing a second novel that she believes to be even better than the first, she is resolved not to publish, except posthumously. Olive is an attractive 30-something who is pushing 40 with both hands.
Ethan (Matt Lockwood) became a social media sensation when he was still in college. His titillating, detailed blog about random women picked up in bars – titled “Sex With Strangers” – earned him millions of followers, two consecutive books on the NY Times Best Seller list, a sweet film deal in Hollywood, and considerable cash. He is a self-made franchise, a celebrity in his own right, and is still in his twenties.
When a blizzard traps the two of them in a writers’ hideaway in northern Michigan, it doesn’t start out well. Olive is introspective and wary. Ethan is extroverted, friendly, and seemingly has no unexpressed thoughts. In short order, Ethan confesses that he has traveled to this remote lodge expressly because Olive is there. He has read one of the few out-of-print copies of Olive’s novel (a gift from a mutual friend) and is so beguiled by her writing that he just had to meet her.
Thus begins a star-crossed relationship that unfolds through crisp, witty dialog that provokes belly laughs while forcing us to care what happens. Ethan declares that he has outgrown the sex-fiend persona that is still very much alive on the Internet. Olive wants to believe him, but is bombarded every day by stories and images to the contrary. When Ethan despairs over their situation, the irony is heartbreaking. “Your book made me fall in love with you,” he proclaims. “My book made you hate me.”
Frannie Shepherd-Bates directs this briskly-paced, tight two-hander. The notion that digital technology has amplified connections that were once kept private is a new that this production deftly handles. It is easy enough to become someone else on the Internet, but as with the case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it is trickier to recall that alter-ego once he’s been on the town. In her program notes, Shepherd-Bates writes, “In Ethan and Olivia – in their desires not only for each other, but for their art to become something other than what it is – we can see in ourselves…. Ultimately, the way we connect with others is only partially within our control.”
“Sex With Strangers” contains profanity, explores adult themes, and is clearly intended for mature audiences. But don’t be fooled by the salacious title—this play is very much about the heart wanting what it wants, without regard for pragmatic considerations. That is enough to make the play both relevant and timeless.
The modular set by Sarah Pearline establishes spare but elegant production values. The set is beautifully lit by Cecilia Durbin. Costumes are by Vince Kelley, Sound Design is by Julia Garlotte and Stage Management is by Kate Peckham.
“Sex With Strangers” runs through April 3 at The Robert A. and Maggie Allesee Rehearsal Hall inside the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, 3711 Woodward Avenue, in Detroit. The remaining performances are scheduled for Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets (35-$45) are available online, by phone at (313) 567-5111, or in person at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra box office.