Get Intimate With 'Sex with Strangers' At The Geffen Playhouse's Cozy Space
Though only 11 years apart in age, the writer characters in Laura Eason's 2011 two-person play Sex with Strangers, which opened last week in the Geffen Playhouse's cozy 149-seat Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater space, reside on opposite sides of a major generational divide.
Olivia (Rebecca Pidgeon), almost 40, is an unsung novelist of high literary ambition who grew up just before our culture's comprehensive digitalization; Ethan (Stephen Louis Grush), in his 20s, is a crude but wildly successful blogger—clearly based on erstwhile Internet bad boy Tucker Max—whose New York Times best seller "Sex with Strangers" is a "memoir based on the intoxicated recollections of a certifiable asshole." Olivia believes that books belong on paper and laments that all our lives are now contained in "a couple of shiny silver rectangles"; Ethan is developing an app that will introduce "cool new writers" to a mass audience and laments that "critics think a book based on a blog is the lowest form of literature." Even their respective smart phone ring tones indicate the divergence between their perspectives on technology.
When these two meet for the first time at a snowbound bed-and-breakfast writers' retreat in the rural Michigan woods, Olivia has never heard of Ethan and is initially put off by his arrogance and presumptuous romantic advances. No slouch as a seducer, though, Ethan proves his genuine admiration for her one published book by quoting passages from memory, which breaks through her defenses and ignites their hot and heavy affair. He's also lucky that the Internet's been down where they're staying, preventing her, in the initial stage of their relationship, from discovering the crass, misogynistic online persona that's made him rich and infamous.
The considerable intrigue of this relationship, and thus of Eason's play, is sustained by Olivia and Ethan's desperate longing for each other's creative and professional attainments to rub off on them, in addition to their repeatedly demonstrated inclination to get busy. The second act takes place back in Chicago, where Olivia eagerly lets Ethan use his connections to advance her career even as she has become unsure that she can really trust and respect him in light of his public penchant for demeaning sexual conquest. At the same time Ethan sees the opportunity to introduce Olivia's new book to the world, his sincere personal commitment to her, and the prospect that she might really approve of him as a person and a writer as his own ticket to legitimacy.
That's a lot of agendas for one relationship, of course, and we sense early on that some act of betrayal will be inevitable. The unexpected form that that betrayal takes is momentarily shocking, though the dastardly act's impact is diminished at the play's end by a somewhat gratuitous smoothing over of its ramifications.
Veteran stage actor Pidgeon smartly conveys the wide range of Olivia's conflicting desires in a canny performance that is often both funny and heartbreaking. Grush, who originated the role of Ethan five years ago in the play's world premiere at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, is, appropriately, both icky and ingratiating as the millennial bro with a latent heart of gold.
Director Kimberly Senior makes good use of the intimate "Audrey" performing space and sensitively draws us in to Olivia and Ethan's interactions both as eager lovers and as writers with incongruous emotional and professional needs. Prolific sound designer Cricket S. Myers gives us not only those telling ring tones, but a range of other atmospheric sound effects, including Ethan peeing in an adjacent rest room. Josh Epstein's lighting is especially successful at delineating the moods at different times of day in the isolated bed and breakfast of the play's first act, while set designer Sibyl Wickersheimer's bookish Chicago apartment, with a fragment of urban landscape visible through the window, provides a perfect setting for the real-world considerations that animate the play's second act.