BWW Review: SEX WITH STRANGERS at Westport Country Playhouse
Olivia (played with grace and strength by Jessica Love) and Ethan (played with charm by Chris Ghaffari) meet as sole guests in a writers' bed and breakfast in Michigan on a stormy winter night. Without Internet service, they have the absence of distractions that they claim they needed in order to write. While the lack of a signal doesn't bother the loner Olivia, who can get just seven emails in a few days, it does pose a problem for Ethan, whose life is on the net. Actually, so is everybody's, as she later discovers. Anything you said or can bite back at any time. What drives the play, though, is not technology but the relationship they develop and how they change. Olivia wants Ethan's success, even though his material is trash, and he wants literary respect. She was devastated by somewhat tepid reviews and lackluster sales of her first novel. He is the type of person who always lands on his feet. She wants to be liked. He can go either way, as long as he gets what he wants.
As the play progresses, they learn that they have a mutual friend who is a Pulitzer prize-winning professor. In between passionate lovemaking, they also realize that they can fulfill their professional ambitions through each other. She gets an introduction to his agent and subsequently a prestigious publisher while he tries to launch his serious literature app with her first book (now an e-book under a pseudonym) and lure his connections to get the works of other literary fiction writers.
It is fascinating to see the development of the two characters. Olivia blossoms socially with and through Ethan as he walks a tightrope between his commercial writing which necessitates acting like a jerk and trying to earn esteem among serious writers. The audience is convinced that these opposites are destined for each other, but there is a touch of Sam Shepard with her sudden naked ambition and his latent vulnerability. Although each character regarded technology in a different way, they both learned how to maximize it to their advantage even if it means sacrificing a part of themselves.
In addition to the superb performances by Jessica Love and Chris Ghaffari, Katherine M. Carter's direction is at a perfect pace with Laura Eason's clever writing. Scenic Designer Edward T. Morris brilliant double set captured everything we expected -- the remoteness of the Michigan getaway with its comfortable, inviting atmosphere, and the apartment of a single college professor who writes novels during the long hours she has to herself. Morris also brings in special touches. There is an emblem of the University of Michigan on the wall of the cabin with its striking bright yellow maize and deep blue colors. Olivia refers to her father's old collection of vinyl and sure, enough, there is an old but sturdy record player near the midcentury table and chairs which she uses for her writing space. On the other side are three stacks of old copies of National Geographic, with the middle one twisted to reflect a small version of the spiral staircase that leads to her bedroom. Alan Edwards' lighting and Beth Lake's sound are perfect for both sets and for the transitions of each scene. Costume designer Caitlin is spot on with the type of clothes each character would wear without falling into stereotypes.