BWW Review: SEX WITH STRANGERS at Kansas City Repertory Theatre

BWW Review: SEX WITH STRANGERS at Kansas City Repertory TheatreSex With Strangers" by Laura Eason at K.C. Repertory Theatre's Copaken Stage downtown is not about what you think it is. Don't be put off by the title, but please be aware that there is significant adult language throughout.

Like all KC Rep productions, technical values are ridiculously high. Vanessa Severo as Olivia is excellent as the market abused writer making a living as a teacher. CJ Eldred as her acting partner and lover is solidly professional.

"Sex With Strangers" is an intimate show. Put the sex piece aside. The "Sex" is the romantic comedy / tragic / life lesson framework inside of which the real story is constructed. The Copaken Stage may be too big to show off this play to its best advantage. Ms. Eason has succeeded as a television writer and producer, another patently intimate medium. The large size of the theater and the choice to eschew artificial amplification may have robbed Eason's clever dialog of its close-in nuances.

Olivia (Vanessa Severo) is a 40-ish teacher (probably literary) and closet author who has gotten into the habit of retiring to a favorite B&B retreat on the snowy side of Lake Michigan to work on her new and so far private novel. Her first novel was published in the distant past to the sound of a resounding thud and mixed reviews. The place is empty of other guests because of a howling snowstorm outside.

There is a knock at the door, reluctantly answered by an irritated Olivia. It is a much younger man named Ethan (CJ Eldred) who has rented a room at this writer's retreat to complete an optioned screenplay of his hit book. It turns out that the two share a writing friend. Ethan has read Olivia's first book and is an admirer. Unbeknownst to her, Ethan has sought her out.

BWW Review: SEX WITH STRANGERS at Kansas City Repertory Theatre

Ethan is a legitimate literary devotee, but he is also waist deep in the Internet and cell phone generation. His commercial success is the result of his misogynistic blog on the darker side of the web. But he is also skilled in how this electronic revolution works as a business. Ethan's almost immediate initial move after arrival is to check his online status, but the storm has made electronic communication impossible.

Olivia dismisses him at first as an unwanted interruption. Over time, she begins to realize that there might be more to this young man than first appears. They begin to identify as writers. Cut off and alone, the inevitable happens and they end up in each other's arms.

Ethan reads Olivia's new book with relish and approval, but without her permission. She is angry at first. He backs off, but convinces Olivia that her that the first book properly promoted online under a pseudonym will be a much bigger hit than it was at first traditional printing. He is right.

Ethan's success is crap and he knows it. He is all about the commerce even though he longs for better. It is, however, tough to walk away from all that money.

Olivia cannot stop herself from reading Ethan's book. Even though warned, she is horrified. They argue. She cannot get the misogynistic images out of her head. She is a traditional lady in all ways and a traditional writer with traditional measures of success burned into her consciousness.

Ethan offers to broker an introduction to his book agent. The meeting with Ethan's agent and a subsequent publisher go well. He warns her about the siren sound of success. They beak up after an epic fight.

Time passes. Ethan has finished his new, quality book. It is good. Olivia too has become successful . She has moved on. She has also heard and been corrupted by the siren's song. She knows that a long time life with Ethan is impossible, but somehow she cannot resist the temptation of one more evening with him.

The transforming publishing industry, the mixed blessings of having a literary agent, the hard work (and commitment and crapshoot) required by the Internet, and the terrors of being constantly judged are all true.

The challenge is that this show tends to be way too talky. I suspect it reads much better. "Sex With Strangers" is directed by KC Rep Assistant Artistic Director Chip Miller in mostly two dimensions. Much of the dialog is delivered from one actor to the other in direct address and too often from static positions. The result is something that should be charming with moments of pathos becomes too draggy. The pace needs to pick up somehow. Even after being critical about pace, "Sex With Strangers" is still worth seeing. It has tremendous potential and a credible cast. The play addresses technological revolution, the current state of publishing, generational change, and (though probably unintended) how we got to where we are politically.

"Sex With Strangers" runs through March 25 at the Copaken Theater downtown. Tickets are available at www.kcrep.com or by telephone at 816-235-6101.

Photos of Vanessa Severo and CJ Eldred in "Sex With Strangers" courtesy of Kansas City Repertory Theatre and Cory Weaver.

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