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Review Roundup: Second Stage's SEX WITH STRANGERS

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Review Roundup: Second Stage's SEX WITH STRANGERS

Second Stage Theatre continues its 35th Anniversary Season with Laura Eason's SEX WITH STRANGERS, directed by David Schwimmer and featuring Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen. The show opens tonight, July 30, off-Broadway.

SEX WITH STRANGERS features set design by Andromache Chalfant, costume design by ESosa, lighting design by Japhy Weideman, and sound design by Fitz Patton. The production stage manager is Scott Taylor Rollison.

When star sex blogger and memoirist Ethan tracks down his idol, the gifted but obscure novelist Olivia, he finds they both crave what the other possesses.

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Charles Isherwood, The New York Times: "Who are you?" Those are the first words spoken in "Sex With Strangers," a twisty and timely new play by Laura Eason, and they cut right to the core of this two-character drama about lust, love and the complex nature of identity in our digital-dominated era...The simmering rapport these two talented actors develop quickly lights a fire under Ms. Eason's drama of good sex and bad faith...Mr. Schwimmer's direction feels a little slack in the first act, although Ms. Eason's writing also has its plodding passages...But as Olivia and Ethan's lives and careers become increasingly intertwined in the second act, the play hits a brisk, engrossing stride. Ms. Gunn...gives a graceful performance that shows Olivia blooming under the influence of attention and acclaim she'd given up on ever receiving. But she also signals Olivia's nagging uncertainty about the true nature of the man she's found herself striking up a relationship with...Mr. Magnussen's high-wattage, canny performance keeps us almost as perplexed as Olivia.

Frank Schek, The Hollywood Reporter: A play called Sex with Strangers better pack some erotic heat, and the Second Stage Theatre production...does that in spades...Director David Schwimmer of Friends fame has given the play a polished, fast-paced production that emphasizes the erotic heat between the characters. Gunn, looking gorgeously sleek and sultry, beautifully conveys the sexual hunger that makes Olivia forgo her innate wariness and vulnerability. Magnussen, frequently displaying his impeccably toned body much as he did in the Durang comedy, makes her succumbing to Ethan's advances fully credible, while displaying crack comedic timing that renders his character winning even when we're never quite sure of his true motivations...Much like the situation referred to in its title, it's not wholly satisfying, but it's a hell of a lot of fun.

Adam Feldman, Time Out NY: The actors strike sexy sparks: Gunn is warily intelligent and believably vulnerable, while Magnussen pops with dynamic energy (and raises shirtlessness to an art form). Under David Schwimmer's canny direction, they earn big laughs with Eason's swift, clever dialogue. But seeds of contrivance are planted along the way, which burst into fruit after intermission. The once-vibrant characters shrink to illustrations as the play spells its points about authenticity, ambition and reputation...Eason ends on a note of ambiguity; in that spirit, you may get the most out of Sex with Strangers by leaving midway through and calling it a satisfying one-act stand.

Jesse Green, Vulture: You may detect a certain amount of sitcom in the setup -- and in the direction, by David Schwimmer of Friends fame. And it's definitely there in the way Eason's lines hit their marks so unerringly. But television savvy -- Eason writes for House of Cards -- can no longer be hurled as an insult onstage. Indeed, Sex With Strangers has a lot more on its mind than many a downtown gut-wrencher. In its upper-middlebrow way it engages useful and current questions about the fate of publishing...the limits of public transparency, and the meaning of intimacy in a hook-up culture...the actors, under Schwimmer's sensitive direction, are convincing as people, not just platforms.

Matt Windman, AM New York: Magnussen, delivering what is essentially a variation on his Tony-nominated performance "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" (minus the show-stopping striptease), provides plenty of laughs at the start while Gunn looks on, reserved and measured but increasingly aroused. While they get to stretch their dramatic ranges as the play soldiers on, their confrontational scenes feel off-kilter. Based on a first viewing, it's hard to tell whether Laura Eason's play is just a forgettable two-hander or if psychological interplay between the characters that would have made it more exciting has been lost in translation. If that's the case, then the fault lies in Schwimmer's direction.

Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: The Second Stage production of the new dramedy "Sex With Strangers" is polished and stylish. It also boasts superior casting, with the excellent Anna Gunn (Walter White's long-suffering wife, Skyler, on "Breaking Bad") and Billy Magnussen (a Tony nominee for "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike"). These two are so fun to watch, you don't even mind that the writing doesn't hit all that hard -- Laura Eason's play punches above its weight class...Smoothly directed by David Schwimmer, "Sex With Strangers" is a sometimes cutting, sometimes titillating tale with things to say about art and commerce -- two sides the play itself nicely combines.

Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly: There is no reason that playwright Laura Eason's frankly sitcommy premise should work. And yet it does, thanks to fluid direction by David Schwimmer (yes, that David Schwimmer) and charmingly forthright performances by the two-member cast...Anna Gunn, an Emmy winner for Breaking Bad, projects both Olivia's outward strength as well as the telling cracks of vulnerability. And Billy Magnussen, a Tony nominee last year for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, delivers a portrayal of millennial alpha-bro entitlement that is every bit as nuanced and chiseled as his impressive abs...Despite initial appearances, they are oddly well-matched. Eason's second act...grinds its wheels with a few too many sudden reversals and betrayals. She in the end, she doesn't quite know whether to keep her couple together or tear them asunder. But a muffed ending doesn't dilute the overall success of Sex With Strangers, which boasts two lively, lusty, and fully lived-in characters. B+

David Finkle, The Huffington Post: Gunn and Magnussen are so good at what they're doing and have the sort of chemistry together that would shatter a rack of test tubes that ticket buyers may not object too loudly the predictability. Indeed, lithe and limber Gunn, known to couch potatoes from Breaking Bad, and Magnussen, having already done stud duty in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, so assiduously keep on keeping on that spectators will likely continue overlooking the numerous soft spots in Eason's plot...Eason writes snappy dialog and has created vibrant characters for her two-hander, but she's already straining credulity before act one ends...

Jeremy Gerard, Deadline: I liked Sex With Strangers more than this precis suggests. For one thing, it's a very sexy battle of wits -- maybe not on the order of Kate and Petruchio or Tracy and Hepburn, but sexy nonetheless. Especially when the playwright reveals Olivia to be rather more complicated than the ambivalent spinster we met when the lights came up. When they're not sloppy kissing and removing one another's clothes, Olivia and Ethan take part in a different kind of seduction as he steers her toward success, which she is eager to embrace...I don't fault the two actors, who are thoroughly enjoyable to watch despite a somewhat tentative directorial hand from David Schwimmer...The real problem is that the play is structured like an hourlong TV drama...that never allows these good actors to really cut loose.

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Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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