Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member
Photos by North Shore Camera Club
Laura Eason’s Sex With Strangers is a play about love, lust, the publishing industry, modern technology’s role in our lives, and control of your own identity. It’s a lot to take on in a single two-person comedy, but Eason is up to the task, and the play sparkles with enough wit, compelling dialogue, and twists and turns to make watching it a pleasure. Citadel Theatre’s new production of the play, featuring Nina O’Keefe and Rich Holton, is a two-hour express train: Scott Westerman’s direction keeps things fast-paced and crisp, precisely what is needed for this show. I’ve rarely experienced an evening at the theatre that went by more quickly, a tribute to all concerned. This show may have its flaws, but overall it is a little gem that rewards its audience with the pleasure of a solid, well-written, well-acted night at the theatre.
O’Keefe plays Olivia, a 39-year-old writer who has allowed her first novel’s mediocre reception (due to poor marketing) to make her reticent to allow anyone even to read her second, which she believes to be an even better book. She’s currently finishing its proofreading on a writing weekend to a bed and breakfast in Michigan in a snowstorm. Suddenly, her little retreat is invaded by Holton’s Ethan, an internet celebrity at 28 whose own non-fiction book series (called Sex With Strangers after the nature of its content) has made him a hot commodity but who can’t be taken seriously as a writer. His own real novel languishes somewhere between his mind and the page. Over the course of a single weekend, these two begin a torrid affair and set themselves up for serious changes in both of their lives.
The affair is understandable: he’s a tremendous hunk of a young guy who comes off as very open and honest despite having written a book about having sex with a hundred women in a year, and she is clearly a very lonely woman, still very attractive, and one whom he has admired for a long time after reading her first novel. Why wouldn’t they get together when they are stuck alone with each other in a blizzard? But if the affair were all that this play was about, it wouldn’t be half as compelling. What draws the audience in is the ongoing argument about publishing on the web vs. publishing the traditional way and the question of what will happen about the new books these two are working on. Eason cleverly uses the affair to frame this discussion, which otherwise might have seemed erudite and difficult to relate to. In the context of a passionate relationship, though—these two are nearly constantly jumping each other’s bones (offstage, of course)—the discussion changes its nature: what might these two be able to do for each other?
Holton gives Ethan, the young and brash proponent of modern technology like e-books, the ability to seem more than a stereotype. Yes, he is all about sex, and yes, he wants what he wants—and, yes, he speaks raunchily about women when talking with his male friends—but there is never any doubt about the sincerity of his feelings for Olivia (though she doubts him plenty). He makes the argument that “Ethan Strange,” his pen name, is actually a character he pretends to be, and it’s a reasonable argument. In this era of YouTube celebrities, many young people adopt faux personalities to get ahead. Holton’s characterization is multi-leveled: on the surface he might just be a horny guy saying whatever he needs to to get the girl in bed, but the earnestness of his love for her work (he even quotes it to her) shines through everything. His smile, which extends all the way to his eyes, tells the real story.
O’Keefe’s Olivia is a study in contradictions. She gets over her initial mistrust of Ethan quickly enough, but she never fully trusts him because she never fully trusts herself. He’s telling her how great she is, but she’s convinced herself that her initial success in getting published was a kind of fluke and she’s terrified to put herself out there again. She is even more frightened of the kinds of comments she could receive if she ever published online: negative print reviews destroyed her; the possibility of negative comments from any number of online readers keeps her from risking anything now. Besides, she’s an old-school writer. She wants to be in print; real books mean everything to her. Eason’s script allows for the possibility that Olivia will be hurt in the end both personally and professionally, though Ethan insists that he can help her in the latter and he certainly is helping with the former. Through the whirlwind of their ten day romance (Act Two takes place back at her Chicago apartment a week later), they manage both to hurt and to help each other.
Westerman’s fast-paced direction never allows the show to drag for even a minute, though he uses occasional silences to his advantage. Both actors have moments without dialogue, alone onstage, that they use to help craft their characters. And both are compelling to watch whenever they are onstage. The set, by Sotirios Livaditis, is minimalist: we see a blank grey wall behind the sparse furnishings in both locations. I found myself wondering why there was no set dressing, why he had chosen to leave the wall bereft of paintings or photographs. Neither location, it seems to me, should have been that sterile. And Eric Watkins’s lighting design, which included some very fine moments with characters in silhouette or down light, is also responsible for one of the most repetitive effects of the night: the red and blue lights that surround the stage and come on to indicate that sex is happening. I liked the effect at first, but it got old fast. It is an interesting device (did Eason’s script call for it? Livaditis’ set design?) but less is more. I also questioned Eason’s final decision to leave a bit of a “will she?” moment at the play’s end: it leaves us with the focus squarely on their relationship instead of everything else that the play has been about, and I thought it diminished the power of everything else.
Still, Sex With Strangers is a funny and interesting show: one that will get you thinking about the nature of who we are, who we see ourselves to be, and how we present ourselves to others in this modern era. It’s very well-done here and easy to recommend. On a cold night in the month of Valentine’s Day, it’s fine entertainment for lovers (and singles) everywhere.
Sex With Strangers is presented by Citadel Theatre, 300 S. Waukegan Rd in Lake Forest. Tickets are $40 and can be purchased through the theatre’s website. For more information about this and other shows, see theatreinChicago.com.