BWW Review: The Bay Area Premiere of Laura Eason's Meaningful, Timely SEX WITH STRANGERS at American Stage
"Soon, we won't have any of those objects anymore--no books, no photo albums, no records, tapes, even CD's--which were pretty soulless and awful--but now I feel nostalgic even about them. There'll be nothing to hold on to, put on a shelf. Nothing that lives with you in the world. We'll all live in empty white rooms, save for a couple of shiny silver rectangles that will hold our whole lives...There are costs to all of this, you know? ...Things are lost. Things that were better." --Olivia in SEX WITH STRANGERS
Certain works of art act as a reflection of a particular time period. When they were first seen, they seemed daring, a look in the modern-day mirror, but as decades pass, they oftentimes become dated, turning into little more than time capsules. Is there a better snapshot of the 1890's than Toulouse-Lautrec's At the Moulin Rouge? Last of the Red Hot Lovers, among so many of Neil Simon's Sixties hits, is totally trapped in 1969, along with Promises, Promises and Hair. Can you imagine the novels Less Than Zero or Bright Lights, Bright City written in any other time period than the 1980's? Even the Pulitzer Prize winning Rent, which actually seemed dated during its first Broadway run in 1996 (and is why the movie is set in 1989), is now incredibly dated, even though it's still a favorite of Gen-Xers and Millennials who oddly look at it nostalgically even with its pre-Y2K forced hipness and AIDS-focused storyline. Avenue Q is even becoming more and more dated the further from 2003 that we get.
Laura Eason's finger-on-the-pulse, two-person play, SEX WITH STRANGERS, is a show so stuck in the Now, so much a part of the experience of America in the second decade of the new Millennia, that I can't help wondering what its shelf life will be. How long will it be before it falls in the dated department along with Hair and Last of the Red Hot Lovers? Because if you want to know what it's like to live in this world in the 2010's, then SEX WITH STRANGERS, currently playing at American Stage, is the show to watch. If you're reading this review on your iPhone, if while scrolling this you are interrupted by text messages and alerts, if you can't have a conversation without checking that phone at least once, then you are experiencing first hand Laura Eason's solidly entertaining play.
Act 1 of SEX WITH STRANGERS is set in a bed and breakfast in rural Michigan, where a 39-year-old obscure writer, Olivia, is poring over a manuscript and interrupted by twenty-something Ethan. Olivia soon learns that Ethan is the author of a book, "Sex with Strangers," that chronicles his personal smutty exploits and has turned into a big-seller at airports and on the New York Times best seller list.
There is no working WiFi or TV at the b&b, and in some ways it reminds us of what it was like before we had the world at a tip of our fingers (where we had to go to a library to research a fact, not google it on our iPhones). This isolation from modern technology is symbolized by a single prop: An land-line telephone, not even a push button one, but an old school one with a dial that I'm sure looks foreign to most Millennials. (Kudos to Prop Master Jerid Fox for this perfectly placed prop.) Act 1 immediately brings to mind a sign that has hung in coffee houses and restaurants around the country (but one I ironically first saw on Facebook): "We do not have WiFi. Talk to each other; pretend it's 1995!"
Act 2, set in Chicago some time later, shows why we should sometimes heed that coffee house advice: With an active WiFi, and text messages beeping constantly, Ethan isn't the only one affected, who cannot imagine life without his technology addiction. Even Olivia succumbs, not just in answering the bing-bong sound of her phone but in other aspects as well (which I will not go into due to Spoiler Alerts). Their relationship, and where it is headed, is at the center of SEX WITH STRANGERS.
The play is a mirror, a looking glass into each audience member, and I doubt there is anyone watching Ethan and Olivia who won't connect with its view of our world. It's terrifically entertaining.
Ethan, the is-he-an-asshole-or-isn't-he character played by Ben Williamson, is bigger than life. Confident, full of verve, he talks a mile a minute. It's a showy role, but not a difficult one, and Williamson handles it quite well. There are certain moments where we don't know who's real--the charismatic lover of Olivia or the smart ass on the phone with his agent who resorts to locker room talk. Williamson juggles these two worlds well.
Olivia, played by Carey Urban, is the more difficult role, and that's why I think I preferred her. She seemed so real, yet with quirks and squirming inadequacies. She lacks confidence, even though she knows she's a great writer. And Urban just nails her decisions and indecisions. We see why she melts for Ethan, and we understand why she's in a constant emotional tug of war--dive into the man's arms or reject him completely? Only once was there a stagey moment, where I felt the blocking was forced for the emotional moment, but Urban's reactions and feelings were so real. Her performance is a triumph.
Director Janis Stevens (so memorable in last year's 4000 Miles) keeps the show moving at a nice pace, even though one set change was understandably too long (it obviously took time for one of the actors to change their outfit and hairstyle in the amount of time). It's a beautifully guided production.
Steven K. Mitchell's set design, using almost every aspect of the stage with both the bed and breakfast in Act 1 and the apartment of Act 2, gives the actors plenty of room to tell this story. The snow falling in Act 1 turned out to be quite effective. And Joseph P. Oshry's lighting is best of all, especially the haunting opening image of a fireplace light on Olivia on the couch. And even the car lights reflected off the snowy outdoor tree was brilliantly rendered.
Rachel Harrison's sound design was quite well done, from the sound of Ethan's car (not too loud, just right) to the annoying interrupting beeps from an iPhone. And the music, perfect for passionate moments, has a kind of sexiness all its own as it plays between scenes: "Human" by Ran'N'Bone Man," "Tempt You (Evocatio) by Nothing But Thieves, "I Am," by James Arthur, and especially "Everything Is Everything" by Phoenix.
Is there sex in SEX WITH STRANGERS? Yes, obviously. But not onstage; this isn't Real Live Sex On Stage. There is a lot of kissing, fondling, mounting, and the removal of certain clothing items. And the lights rightly dim before the next sexual step. But it's an exciting show, with the audience enraptured the whole time. So what if it may seem passé when the 2020's hit; it's extremely pertinent now. We identify with these characters because, living in the 2010's, we're drowning in the same world. In fact, to prove the play's theme and to show that we are perhaps cursed with technology, at one point in the show, an audience member's phone went off. If you are a constant theatergoer, then you understand how sadly typical this disturbance has been, more so now than ever. We have to go back to the 1980's to recall the last decade when we didn't have to worry about an audience member's phone going off.
This is the Bay Area premiere of SEX WITH STRANGERS, and it plays at American Stage until August 6th. For tickets, please call (727) 823-PLAY.