Sunday, 10 August 2014

Anna Gunn & Billy Magnussen in Laura Eason's SEX WITH STRANGERS at Second Stage

     SEX WITH STRANGERS, the title of Laura Eason's excellent serious comedy, has two meanings. It is, on one hand, the title of a best-selling quasi memoir by Ethan Crane, known to the blogosphere as Ethan Strange. Ethan's book, soon to be a movie, is based on his blog which chronicles his many one-night stands with women he has picked up the old-fashioned way -- in bars rather than online. To put it mildly, his blog and book aren't very respectful toward the women he has seduced. Ethan knows that "Ethan Strange" is "an asshole." But is that sexist creep who represents the worst sort of frat boy macho the real Ethan? Ethan isn't totally responsible for his notoriety. Women have filled the blogosphere with real and fictional accounts of their sexual encounters with Ethan -- he has given them their fifteen minutes of fame and that hasn't helped dispel his cynicism. SEX WITH STRANGERS has a deeper meaning. The play depicts a relationship that begins as just the sort of one-night stand Ethan is famous for, but this one sputters on beyond that encounter. Do twenty-eight year old Ethan and Olivia, a thirty-nine year old teacher and failed (commercially at least) novelist, ever really know or understand each other? Are they ever anything but strangers?
     The first act takes place in a bed and breakfast in rural Michigan that has a reputation as a writer's retreat -- there's nothing else to do there. Olivia, the only resident, has been proofreading a second novel. She has lost confidence in her writing after a mixed critical reception and no commercial success from her first book. Olivia is attractive, talented but also sensitive, neurotic. Enter Ethan, who has aspirations to being a serious novelist and has come to the B&B to work on the screenplay for SEX WITH STRANGERS. Has Ethan also come to this Michigan retreat because Olivia will be there? Ethan's mentor is a former lover of Olivia's and he has read and loved her first novel. He knows she will be at this B&B. This is one of many questions about Ethan, the more interesting, complex charter in Eason's play. Ethan keeps insisting that he is not caddish "Ethan Strange", that "Ethan Strange" is just a persona. He wants Olivia to take him seriously as Ethan Crane, a nice guy and a fellow artist. Because of the storm, there's no internet, which throws Ethan into a total panic. What do you do if your cell phone doesn't link you to the outside world? You have sex with the only other occupant of this isolated retreat. In this case, by the second day Ethan, the king of the one-night stand, is talking about an ongoing relationship with Olivia. What connects them is their kinship as writers as well as sexual attraction, but Ethan, who can charm anyone into anything, takes control of Olivia's career. He gets her an agent and gets her first novel, now out of print, out on the internet where it gains a lot of attention. When Ethan betrays Olivia, it is not a sexual betrayal, but an artistic one.
     Olivia never fully trusts Ethan and we never know for sure how much he can be trusted. Ethan loves Olivia, but also wants to be in control of her career, another form of sexism. Yet, above all, Ethan wants to be seen as a decent person. Actually he is more honest and open with Olivia than she is with him. Because Olivia is somewhat closed off, she is more a foil for Ethan than an equally fully formed character. Anna Gunn fills in the blanks effectively. We see that her feelings are all on the surface, that she is filled with fears and insecurities. A lot of the portrayal of Olivia has to be in silences, reactions. Gunn is a very physical actress and we get to know her character as much by how she physically reacts as by what she says. Billy Magnussen gives a brilliant, bravura performance as Ethan: charming, brash, physically dominating, irresistible, but also something of a question mark. Eventually we see that he is as sensitive as Olivia. Magnussen is a true stage animal. It's fascinating to watch his Ethan fill a room with his physical, sexual presence. But there's also an intellectual energy. David Schwimmer has staged the play effectively and helped his actors create fascinating, totally convincing characters.
     SEX WITH STRANGERS is a more intelligent version of the two character romances that used to be a Broadway staple. Eason's play, however, asks a lot of questions about sex and love in the twenty-first century. It also says a lot about what it means to be a writer in the age of blogs and tweets. It's entertaining and stimulating. Did I forget to say that it's also very sexy? What more can one ask?        

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