Olivia is a novelist nearing forty whose first book received mixed reviews and limited attention; as Sex With Strangers opens, she’s at a writer’s retreat and working on a new novel. This one, she’s convinced herself, she’s doing for herself alone, for the private joy of writing.
The scene is placid: Snow falls outside the windows, a glass of wine sits near her, we hear lilting piano music. And then twenty-something Ethan intrudes on her solitude. For him, exposure to the public means everything. His writing career began with a crass, raunchy blog that gives the play its title. Having bet a friend he could sleep with a different woman every week, Ethan blogged the encounters, the women re-blogged them, and he acquired an ever-expanding audience. The blog turned into a book; the book is being made into a movie.
You can see why Curious Theatre Company chose Laura Eason’s fine play for a regional premiere. The dialogue is funny, wistful, literate and searching, the story incisive and the characters complex. Olivia isn’t laughably inept: She knows a bit about technology, but she’s never fully understood the power of social media or wanted to use it to promote her literary career. Still, she can’t help being intrigued by the power and fame that technology has brought Ethan, and when he offers help and advice, she’s interested. As for Ethan, he’s no grunting, semi-literate pig. His tastes in reading are as intelligent as Olivia’s and his ambitions not entirely different: He yearns for authenticity and respect as a writer; he loves and understands Olivia’s work. Naturally, given the play’s title, Olivia and Ethan make love. Again and again. But neither fully understands the other, and she cannot excise the ugly, misogynistic words of his book from her mind. That’s not him, Ethan insists. It’s a persona created for the Internet, a man who no longer exists. Though the two share both a physical passion and a passion for writing, Olivia can never be sure exactly who she’s making love to, and Ethan has to measure her diffidence about putting her work forward against the fiercely burning ambition she denies. Each of them is essentially having sex with a stranger.
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Director Christy Montour-Larson has mounted a terrific production, and her cast is perfect. Michael Kingsbaker’s punky, in-your-face masculinity gentles into a touching tenderness and respect toward Olivia but returns often enough to keep her suspicions on the boil. Paige Price brings to Olivia a mix of frustration and calm, settled wisdom, as well as a soft-edged sexiness. On-stage sex scenes are often squirmy and unbelievable — I find myself wondering whether the actors really like each other in real life and if either has bad breath — but here they’re handled with a beautiful sensuality, aided by brilliantly chosen, insistently exultant music.
The tech, as always at Curious, brings meticulous artistry to the party. In addition to sound designer Alex Ruhlin’s music, Kevin Brainerd’s costumes are spot on. Susan Crabtree’s set — a background of zigzagging book-filled shelves lit by many small, warmly glowing lamps — is beautiful and evocative. When the lights (courtesy Shannon McKinney) fade, we see a second pattern glowing on those shelves, but far more coldly: an array of strategically placed small gray screens.
Eason is one of the writers on Netflix’s House of Cards, and though she explores issues we’ve seen on stages before, her script is never simplistic. She doesn’t scold about the dehumanizing effect of social media, but shows both its problems and its possibilities. Ethan doesn’t disdain traditional publishing: He has an agent and a regular publisher; he met the women he seduced for his blog in bars, not on dating sites. Olivia can’t help being excited by the realization of what the Internet — and Ethan, whose natural habitat it is — can do for her as an artist. We see here also that words and images once posted can be indelible and surface at any time to mess up our lives; that writers now have a freedom they’ve never had before to reach an audience on their own terms and without compromising their work. At its heart, Sex With Strangers raises searching questions of identity, of who we are online and how that construct represents or differs from our essential selves, embedding these ideas organically in a wonderfully absorbing human story.
Sex With Strangers, presented by Curious Theatre Company through February 20, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org.