American Stage’s production of Sex with Strangers has audiences and critics just about as tickled with its newfangled tech repartee as your great-aunt Rosemary swiping an iPad screen for the first time.
Not to mention, the female lead is more than a decade older than the male lead — a dynamic that’s increasingly common in everyday life but not so much in theater.
“It’s so now! So timely!” many are effusing.
True, but Sex with Strangers‘ timeless truths are what make it a must-see. It’s much more than a zeitgeist-powdered trifle. The conflicts that arise between principals Olivia and Ethan — issues around self-worth vs. a willingness to compromise, crossed boundaries vs. a capacity for forgiveness, disappointments vs. continued admiration can be traced back to the first time a frustrated caveman scrawled a story on the living room wall that met with his Missus’ scorn. We once again learn that while much has changed around us, much is still the same when it comes to couples screwing up a good thing.
American Stage’s production of the 2014 romantic dramedy, penned by House of Cards story editor Laura Eason, begins with an internet-famous, opportunistic and oversharing novelist (think Chris Hardwick occasionally possessed by Daniel Tosh) crashing a rural Michigan bed and breakfast during a blizzard, much to the annoyance and discombobulation of the inn’s only guest and housekeeper, Olivia (who recalls a delicate Elizabeth Perkins with Tina Fey sass). An older, wiser, more subdued and talented writer, Olivia has achieved zero acclaim. She and Ethan’s encounter turns out to be not so serendipitous, and what transpires between them becomes both poignant and cleverly relatable, and more advantageous for one than the other.
Credit goes to Eason for showing how the quick access of the Internet can influence interpersonal relations for better and worse — often the latter. She illustrates how our exchanges online encourage us to think even less before acting and how they can potentially reveal our dirty secrets. Her nods to the accelerated dysfunction of modern times are just as brilliant as her rendering of an unlikely but still somehow feasible courtship.
Self-sabotage fueled by ego and greed — that’s something we Americans are particularly good at, themes that fit in well with American Stage’s life-in-the-USA-themed offerings of ’16-’17. Managing Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte has chosen a sweet-and-sour slice of American pie again— this time we’re invited into the living room of an female-senior-intergenerational couple whose reputations in the outside world gets in the way of their inner sanctum .
Actors Carey Urban and Ben Williamson do an impeccable job as Olivia and Ethan. They accomplish the amazing feat of expressing honesty and and intimacy while still being highly watchable. They convey romantic ups and downs with pitch-perfect dynamics — guided with precision by Director Janis Stevens. Their makeout scenes are dern sexy too (though, ahem, tasteful). We can identify with all manner of courtship universality through them, from the minutia of their body language to their reactions to their regretful impulses.
Note: If you’re one who enjoys big moments and plot twists, Sex With Strangers may not be for you. The play’s strengths emanate from its character arcs and wit, and production value, of course. There is some inertia, especially in Act Two, which reflect real-life comings and goings. For some, these low-key moments might not make for watchable theater. For this theatergoer, who happens to be an older woman in a relationship and a writer, Sex with Strangers rings true and provides delicious food for thought.
Fun fact: Playwright Eason didn’t base Olivia on herself. If anything, she identified more with Ethan. In an interview with The Interval NY, she claimed, “I wrote the whole other character, and actually there’s as much of me in him and maybe even a little more than in her.” She told The New York Times, “For so much of my life, I’ve put myself in the male mind-set in all the art that I consume and admire, so there’s just a level of comfort in that perspective. Whereas sitting in the woman’s seat, I do feel like I’m representing a little bit: ‘What am I saying about this woman?’ ”
Which brings us to the biggest takeaway from Sex with Strangers — nothing is quite as it appears. Jumping to conclusions, especially in relationships, will land you in a heaping hot mess.
Quite the opposite of a hot mess, but pretty hot herself, American Stage’s Gularte deserves props for her remaking of American Stage as a space for first-rate production and thought-provoking theater. Kudos to her for curating the theater’s most resonant and provocative season to date. Next season’s “We the People” should be no less exciting as it further explores American ideologies with a focus on culture and inclusion. Click here for its exciting play offerings.
Visit americanstage.org for ticket information and details about other offerings.