Sex With Strangers by Laura Eason. David Saint directed. George Street Playhouse and Philadelphia Theater Company, 2016.
There are some provocative developments in Sex With Strangers, but its premise is implausible.
A woman who appears to be 40 (or older) is safely ensconced for a weekend at a writers’ retreat in rural Michigan. It’s snowy, no one else has booked the lodge, and its owner is away. That’s fine with Claudia (played by JoAnna Rhinehart), who prefers solitude.
In barges a brash guy with green-streaked hair named Ethan (played by Kyle Coffman). They are opposites. He appears to be half her age. She’s reserved; he’s a motor-mouth. She’s an avid reader of books; he’s a techie. She’s a financially-unsuccessful novelist while he made a lucrative career picking up strangers for sex, then blogging the details of his hookups with what he calls “dumbass loser sluts.”
Ethan babbles an implausible story to explain why he’s there without a reservation. Any intelligent woman like Claudia would refuse to let him in the door. But she allows him to come in, then stay for the night, and — after he tells her of his “Sex With Strangers” career — she has sex with him.
Worse than that: they spend the whole weekend copulating, and later she has him come to her Chicago home for more sex. The relationship is unreasonable. Perhaps it could work if Claudia gave some indication of her need for a radical change in her life, but the script does not provide that. Or it could work if there was any noticeable chemistry between the two of them, but there’s not.
Soon after his arrival, Ethan reveals that he heard about Claudia’s writing from one of his teachers, then he read her first novel and was intrigued by the jacket photograph of the author. That ploy would have some traction if director David Saint cast a woman who looked younger and sexier. What’s “sexy” is subjective, of course, but we yearn for the playwright and/or the director to give him motivation.
So Ethan inquired about her, tracked her down, heard that she’d be alone at that lodge on that day and stalked her. He traveled 200 miles specifically to accost her.
The script gave us no reason to imagine that Claudia could desire such creepiness, or such danger to her person. Even Howard Shapiro, who liked the play, wrote: “I didn’t trust Ethan from the minute I saw him; the young Ethan is cocky, menacing.” I asked two women who sat next to me if they, as females, saw any appeal in this character and they replied: “Absolutely not.”
There’s nothing wrong about relationships of young men with older women, but these two have nothing in common, nor any basis for trust.
The second act reveals that Ethan wants to move away from his sexual image and become a serious writer. After Ethan gets Claudia’s book published and marketed, he becomes envious of her achievement. This is an appealing turn-about, but the power shift is built on a flimsy foundation. We are meant to infer that Claudia always wanted Ethan’s brand of fame, but the playwright supplied no indication of such a yearning.
An additional weakness is that Ethan praises Claire’s writing (“I was, like, possessed by it; you can’t keep this from the world”) but we never hear anything that lets us judge for ourselves.
Jason Simm’s sets for the lodge and Olivia’s Chicago apartment are attractive, but we wonder how she could afford to build those imposing floor-to-ceiling bookshelves when she sold only 300 copies of her novel.
There are some plays where the actors’s appearances are crucial, and this is one such. Check this photo by Joan Marcus of Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen in a 2014 New York Second Stage production:
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