BWW Review: Compelling, Well-Written and Performed SEX WITH STRANGERS at Cleveland Play House

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Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

As the lights come up on the thrust stage in Cleveland Play House's Outcalt Theatre, revealed was a large comfortable room, and a woman snuggled up on a chair by a free-standing fireplace, reading a book. Outside a large span of windows, snow could be seen cascading down. Suddenly a car is heard and headlights glared through the window. Pounding is heard at the door. Who is there? What's going on? Sounds like the opening scene of a mystery. But, no, this is the start of Laura Eason's SEX WITH STRANGERS, a charming and intriguing play of "lust, love and the complex nature of identity in our digital-dominated era."

Eason, who has written over 20-full lengths plays, and serves as the Artistic Director of Lookingglass Theatre, is a Renaissance woman. Besides her successful administrative and writing life, her resume banners her abilities as an actress, musician, singer, songwriter, band member and circus performer on the trapeze. Many know her for her four seasons as a writer for Netflix's HOUSE OF CARDS.

Her well-written comedy/drama, SEX WITH STRANGERS, centers on Olivia, who is holed up in a remote bed-and-breakfast, an informal writer's retreat in the Michigan woods, and Ethan, an on-line Millennial guru who has come to the B&B to finish a writing task.

Olivia is an attractive forty-year old, typical Generation Xer, whose debut novel was not well received by the critics and basically tanked.

Ethan, 28, is a charming, youthful stud with the personality of a playful puppy, who is a well-known blogger and has already written two best selling books that were on the New York Times best seller's list for a record number of weeks under the pseudo-nom "Ethan Strange," in which he reveals a series of sexual hookups.

She is shell-shocked from her literary "disaster," and though she has written another novel, it is hidden away from public view.

He, a self-described "asshole," is about to be made even more famous as his graphic details of his experience having "sex with strangers" is about to be made into a film.

The internet at the B&B is out and there are zero bars available for cellular contact. She is fine with this, he is hyper. She likes being cut off from the world, she can happily lick her wounds in the privacy, while he doesn't know how to operate without his electronic toys and connectivity. She is of one generation, he of another.

He is like a hyperactive child, filled with braggadocio, possessing lots of charm. She is a mature, third grade teacher, who has dealt with "children" like him in her classrooms. He is warmed with something she knows nothing about...he knows her former writing teacher, has read her book, and knew she would be at the B&B.

Ever the delightful con-artist, he showers her with praise for her writing, and quotes line and verse from her novel. She is thrown off guard. And, of course, they are soon locked in a torrid embrace.

The next morning, she, wearing his sweat pants and t-shirt, and he, wearing only black boxer briefs, negotiate a type of relationship while sparring over her disdain for e-books and the invasion of electronics into modern-day society. His concern is that his many followers on the net are going to think he is dead since he has not been on-line.

He has snuck downstairs during the night and read the manuscript of her novel, against her wishes. Using his unbridled charm, he offers to put her new novel into the blogosphere. She desires it to be published by a "legit" publisher in a printed form that she can hold and turn the pages and smell the paper and print.

The play unwinds with questions of whether he helps her get an agent for ulterior motives, whether good sex conquers all, whether she can forgive him for his past sexual infidelities, why he released her book without her permission, what happens when we invent our identity-online and off, and what happens when our skills, talents and self become part of the public domain.

Wisely, Eason, who writes sharp, clever, meaningful, funny dialogue, doesn't make the script into a soap opera by rolling out a feel good, happily-ever-after ending. She leaves the audience, as many good modern day writer do, with questions to ask and attempt to answer.

The CPH production, under the adept direction of Joanie Schultz, is perfection personified. Schultz gets all instances of drama and comedy right. Nicely paced, she has blended the visual and performance elements into a joyous experience.

Beautiful Monette Magrath textures her performance as Olivia so well that there is no acting involved, just Magrath living as Olivia. The character's pain and conflicted pattern of making decisions, after being subjected to harsh criticism for her writing, which represents her very essence, and believing that she must listen to those outside voices, is readily apparent. Her sensitivity not to trust and be pulled in again, causes her not to trust Ethan's motives. This is a fine and focused performance.

Sean Hudock, he of handsome face, gym-toned body and charming demeanor, was made to play Ethan. With a sly grin, a twinkle in his eye, and spoken charm, he brings Ethan to life. He is so good at making the audience "believe" that he cons us into trusting the character's machinations. Once we think we have caught onto his games and pull away, we are brought back by his beguiling ways.

The chemistry between Magrath and Hudock is magnetic. They exude connection.

On opening night one of the doorknobs to Olivia's apartment came off in Hudock's hand, the other knob hit the floor. Without missing a beat, he picked up the knobs, tossed them behind a pillow on the couch and exited by walking around the stage right end of the set. Since there was no way to reattach the knobs, he continued to make exits and entrances around the set. Though some of the audience may have been confused by why the door wasn't being used, this was a capital instance of "the show must go on."

Chelsea Warren's scenic design worked well. Michael Boll's lighting design, Thomas Dixon's sound and Whitney Locher's costumes all enhanced the production.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: SEX WITH STANGERS is a well-written script which gets a compelling production. The acting is top-notch, the direction spot-on. The must see show will delight and tantalize the audience. It well deserved the standing ovation it got on opening night.

SEX WITH STRANGERS runs through November 13, 2016, in the Outcalt Theatre in the Cleveland Play House complex of PlayhouseSquare. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.



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