Laura Eason’s popular play “Sex with Strangers,” which has become one of the most performed plays in regional theaters around the country and has recently opened at Hartford’s Theaterworks, is the theater industry’s version of click-bait. There’s not really any sex at all on stage—Eason ends her scenes in the first act just as her two characters are disrobing. There’s no nudity—just a few scattered moments when various pieces of clothing are quickly and frantically removed.
So should anyone looking for a titillating evening stay away? By no means. There’s enough sexual tension between Courtney Rackley’s Olivia and Patrick Ball’s Ethan to steam up the windows of the snow bound bed and breakfast in rural Michigan where the first act is set. Brian Prather’s well-detailed set displays a coziness that encourages intimacy between the two characters, who are writers at different phases of their careers, each unhappy in their own way with how things currently stand.
Olivia is approaching 40, with a single published novel to her credit, one that did not sell especially well or achieve unanimous critical praise, but that has in the interim developed a loyal and dedicated following. The bed and breakfast has famously served as a writers’ retreat and Olivia has brought along her latest opus to review and edit, while the owner has slipped out for a few days to visit family. She expects to be able to work alone, but at the height of the snowstorm, in pops 20-something author Ethan Strange (the last name is a pseudonym) who had hoped to work on a teleplay based on his two bestselling “memoirs” of his experiences dating women in the crazed Chicago dating scene, “Sex with Strangers” and his by-popular-demand sequel, “More Sex with Strangers.”
Although they initially spar over each one’s perceived rudeness, it turns out Ethan heard about the B&B from a mutual friend who is Olivia’s mentor, and he was hoping that she would be there. He claims to be a fan of her writing, but she minimizes his praise and protectively refuses to share her latest work with him. Over the course of their three days together, a palpable chemistry develops between them and they easily surrender to their feelings even agreeing to continue to see each other back in Chicago. Ethan during this time has sneaked a peak at Olivia’s new novel which impresses him, while against his explicit request, she visits his website, and discovers the misogynistic, cocky, alcohol-fueled persona that has earned him his popularity.
Eason’s second act moves the action to Olivia’s apartment in Chicago, where Olivia’s renewed confidence comes into conflict with Ethan’s own ambition, as he tries to move beyond the narrow genre that has defined him. He feels that if he can e-publish Olivia’s novel on his website, it will give him the new credibility and intellectual acceptance that he seeks. Needless to say, their relationship is seriously impacted by their decisions going forward.
Theaterworks’ Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero has given “Sex with Strangers” an impeccable production, that is visually becoming, thanks to set designer Prather, costume designer Amy Clark and lighting designer John Lasiter, and extremely well-paced. He maintains a welcome sense of curiosity as to where the play is going to head to next, and gets out of his two actors fine performances that not only vividly captures their rising sexual attraction but also manages to make Olivia and Ethan so likable that we can imagine a potential relationship and even at times, root for them, as the play ultimately reveals the impact that they have had upon each other.
Ball neatly conveys Ethan’s flippancy and privilege, while slowly revealing a slightly more vulnerable capability that he essentially ignores in order to maintain his public image as the guy who sleeps with a different woman (at a minimum) every night and blogs about it, which resulted in his book contracts. Ball (and Ruggiero) know their millennials, as Ethan also demonstrates a self-focus that betrays the narrow world, and world view, to which he has confined himself. Not only does he panic when he discovers the storm has knocked out the guest house’s wi-fi, but he’s later unexpectedly impressed by the number of books that line Olivia’s wall, genuinely comparing it to a library, which by no means it is. This accommodates a major plot development that happens later, showing how Ethan’s single mindedness can lead to betrayal or worse. He also successfully hints at the professional jealousy gnawing at Ethan as he watches Olivia move toward regaining her literary cred, although he’s made multi-millions off of his books and movie deal.
Rackley does a fine job with Olivia, though she seems at times a bit too peppy and exuberant for a woman who has lost confidence in her writing ability and is tired and worn out from the years of struggling with her newest book. Maybe it was Rackley’s physically trim and well-exercised body, but it seemed to work a bit against Olivia’s emotional state at the beginning of the play. That said, she did handle Olivia’s doubts quite believably, though I thought she’d be a bit more hesitant about so readily jumping into the sack with Ethan. Rackley also conveys her character’s renewal through her involvement with Ethan as well as the awkward situation in which she finds herself regarding her plans for the book.
While there are no explicit sex scenes, Eason’s play does require the actors get close and intimate multiple times over the course of the evening, as Ruggiero sets a great deal of the action close to the lip of the stage very near the audience. It’s an accomplishment that the actors are able to sustain this double intimacy while not missing a moment of dialogue or losing character, while doing justice to Eason’s work.
“Sex with Strangers” runs through April 17 at Hartford’s Theaterworks, 233 Pearl Street in Hartford. For information and tickets, call the box office at 860.527.7838 or visit the theater’s website at www.theaterworkshartford.org.