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BWW Reviews: Strong Acting of Timely Script Makes SEX WITH STRANGERS One to See at Signature

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At its core, Laura Easton's Sex with Strangers is a story about identity, what it means, and its significance in how we interact with others and the world around us. Not just a story about identity, however, but identity in the digital age where it's entirely possible for one to assume a role/persona in "real life" and an entirely or slightly different one online. Can shades of unfiltered truth about who we really and truly are be found in each? Do both matter in how we see ourselves and how others see us?

When we meet Olivia (local favorite Holly Twyford), she's holed up in a bed and breakfast in rural Michigan in the middle of a snowstorm. The locale - we learn a bit later - is a writer's retreat. She's using her spring break from teaching to work on her second book. When another guest knocks on the door, she's rightly a bit startled. After all, there's a massive storm going on, most guests have cancelled, and it's really late. Enter the younger Ethan (Signature newcomer Luigi Sottile). Young, well-built, cute forward, and abrupt, he doesn't really look like the kind of guy who would hide himself away to write. So, Olivia asks him "who are you?" A loaded question, it seems, but one that will set the course of their interaction not only during his stay at the retreat, but also after they both return to their day-to-day lives.

Initially, Olivia knows little about Ethan other than the fact that he's addicted to the Internet (he had a near meltdown when he realized there was no access at the moment) and doesn't really look or seem like the kind of guy who she'd relate to well. Through initial small talk, she learns that his work has apparently spent some time charting on the New York Times bestseller list and he's been asked to turn that book - provocatively titled Sex with Strangers - into a screenplay. She can't look up the book - or his blog that serves as the basis for it - because the Internet is down, which means that all she has to go on about who Ethan is, is what she observes about him in the present and what he tells her about himself and his work. On the other hand, Ethan knows more about Olivia even before the conversation between the two of them commences. This is certainly, not due to her online presence, which is minimal to non-existent. With her tendency to be tightly wound, practical, worrisome, and wary of others, Olivia is initially cautious to tell him much about herself, but when the topic turns to how much he liked her poorly sold book from years past (chalk it up to marketing/choice of covers) she opens up slightly.

They couldn't be more different, but their lives become entangled. A literary app, a publishing deal, some secret glances at the other's writings, a few online escapades (past and present) - the questions are then more complex, but still grounded in the initial question Olivia asks of Ethan ("who are you?"). Who are these people and how do they relate to one another? Do they both truly know the other is and is it fair to exploit those qualities for personal gain? The fact that nothing is private comes clear to both individuals, but they're left to ponder what that means for their future writing careers and their relationship with one another.

At Signature Theatre - where the work is having its area premiere (it initially premiered at Chicago's Steppenwolf and later went on to have its first full production at New York's Second Stage) - director Aaron Posner rightly focuses the production to consider these fundamental, timely questions. He manages to more or less overcome possible weaknesses in Easton's script, which includes bloating what could be a ninety minute, swiftly moving play to one that's a little over two hours (including an intermission) thanks to some literary discussions that don't necessarily move the plot forward in a useful way. True, minimal pacing problems sometimes plague the latter half of act one. Likewise, scene changes in act two to switch out props - though necessary to show the passage of time - are a bit too lengthy for my taste even if they are covered well with James Bigbee Garver's pulsating sound design. However, these issues are very minor and do not necessarily hinder the success of the production.

To help him in his pursuit to tell Easton's story, we have two strong actors. Twyford, as Olivia, is exceedingly capable of giving a layered performance befitting someone struggling internally with her identity, her writing, what it means to be successful, and what she wants from life. She doesn't show all of her cards at once, but clues arise every now and again which Ethan can exploit. Body language, vocal tone - both provide us (and Ethan) with clues. Ms. Twyford is exceptional in everything she does in the DC theatre scene and this is no different. As Ethan, Sottile is charming, mysterious, and confident - truly able to win over pretty much anyone. His inner-struggle is slightly different. There's a man who's seen much success, but what's the cost both personally and professionally? With Sottile's performance, the struggle of "online Ethan" and "the Ethan that Olivia sees in the flesh" is central. The two actors have solid chemistry and as far as acting goes, they are happily equals.

The strong acting and the timely, provocative, and challenging script are likely reason enough to give this production a chance, but the production elements are also solid. From JD Maden's scenic design which incorporates the literary theme to Andrew Cissna's effective lighting design to establish setting (a snowstorm in rural Michigan in the case of act one, the New York skyline in the case of act two), both add interesting elements.

Running Time: A little over two hours, including one intermission.

"Sex with Strangers" plays at Signature Theatre - 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, VA - through December 7. For tickets, call the box office at 703-820-9771 or purchase them online via Ticketmaster.

Photo by Theresa Wood.


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