There is just something about really good piece of theater where all the elements, the writing, the directing and the acting, even the set design, come together to form this perfect morsel of theater that is entirely satisfying and still leaves you wanting more. This is what keeps me coming back to the theater time after time; sitting through bad shows, mediocre shows, the merely good shows and the really good shows, every once in a while you find these tasty morsels of goodness that tip over into an exceptional piece of theater. Frankly, I’m usually happy to come out of a show entertained but occasionally you hit that wonderful trifecta of entertainment, talent and content that make a great show; that’s Sex with Strangers.
Ethan and Olivia meet on a dark and stormy night in a secluded retreat. Olivia is a talented writer who was traumatized by the unsuccessful launch and criticism of her first book years ago. Ethan is a bros bro who has gotten wealthy from turning his blog (about his escapades having sex with strangers) into a couple of successful books and a movie. These divergent people, both who are trying to escape what they have become and become what they would like to be, meet in the woods one night and the paths they choose makes all the difference. I’m not going to give too much away, the discovery of the characters and there action and motivations is part of the fun.
The show does a wonderful job of maintaining this undercurrent of tension throughout the play about the characters feelings and emotions. There is always that soupcon of doubt about their true motivations. These are two people who are genuinely attracted to each other, have not insincere feeling for each other but who also find they may have a use for each other. There is this back and forth on which is the stronger motivator in the relationship. From the beginning you’re certainly skeptical of Ethan’s motives, at least I was, but at the same time you are really rooting for him to be the person he’s attempting to be as opposed to the person he has been or may still be. His persona, the one he mostly lets you see, is so damn likable and charming that you want to believe this is a person genuinely seeking change.
Olivia, well, you like Olivia from the beginning. She’s smart and talented with a droll sense of humor and aside from her fear of trying to publish again she is the epitome of the modern urbane woman but not in a stuck-up way (okay a little stuck-up.) Olivia secures the high moral ground pretty early on but there comes a moment in the play where the decisions she makes related to Ethan, spurred by the possibility of success, may be as much about his utility as her affection for him. The real tension blooms when what is best for each of their ambitions stops following the same path.
The playwright, Laura Eason’s, writing is witty and insightful and very relevant to the hurdles of love and ambition in the digital age. In exploring these characters relationship we’re also exploring numerous modern day issues; the pervasive nature of social media and how it affects how we interact with the world, the on going objectification of women and their bodies for entertainment, women’s complicity in the that exploitation, the bros will be bros culture of men (to be fair, of some men.) All issues we see and talk about nearly daily and rarely have consensus on. Yes, social media is every where but damn if it’s not a useful tool. The bro culture isn’t positive but this is America and a bro’s got a right to be a bro. (But be careful, when you’ve decided you don’t want to be a bro no more, social media may object to that!)
This wonderful and witty writing is beautifully performed by Holly Twyford and Luigi Sottile (I’ll let you figure out who plays who.) For the tension in this play to work you really have to believe that these two characters are truly attracted to each other and Ms. Twyford and Mr. Sottile have on-stage chemistry that is simply off the charts. You expect a play with “Sex” in the title to be at least a little sexy and they deliver steamy passion. And if that isn’t enough they are also quite good in the parts of the play that require speaking. They’re equal to the witty intelligent dialog and bring these two characters to life and bring into reality their emotions and conflicts. You care about these characters and you can’t help but root for them but at the same time you must acknowledge that life doesn’t always, actually rarely, allows for the perfect happy ending. Of course I’m not saying it’s not a happy ending, or actually an ending at all. Just like life there are always new decisions and new conflicts to be resolved.
One final nod to the set designer, I loved this set, I want to live on that set. Like the performance the design had wit and charm.
The show is playing through the first week of December at Signature Theatre and I really can’t recommend it enough.