Sex With Strangers

By Brooks Appelbaum

“Sex with Strangers,” Laura Eason’s fiercely smart two-hander, running at TheaterWorks through April 17, has multiple nuances, startling plot twists, and two terrifically drawn characters. The whip-smart Eason also dramatizes themes usually best dealt with on the page: literary vs. commercial success; artistic aspirations vs. celebrity at any cost; Internet identities vs. genuine personalities; and, naturally, casual vs. meaningful sex. Unfortunately, the many nuances of the script are smoothed out due to one serious instance of miscasting, which, in a two-character play, is one too many.

Half of the pair embodying and dramatizing these juxtapositions is the intense but fragile author Olivia (Courtney Rackley), nearly forty, who has been emotionally broken by two failed novels, and who, at the play’s opening, is making a living teaching and is writing only for herself in order to avoid the pain of rejection she experienced in the past.

When Ethan (Patrick Ball) almost literally blows into her life (they meet at a snowed-in bed and breakfast where both have come for solitary writing time -- or have they?), we see Olivia’s opposite in nearly every way. Ethan, a brash and confident twenty-eight-year-old, has two New York Times bestsellers under his belt, both of them based on his sexual hook-ups, with a twist that I will allow you to discover.

Ethan, who has used the Internet to catapult himself to success, has all the self-assurance Olivia lacks, personally and professionally. Yet he wants what she has: the ability to write an achingly evocative, poignantly beautiful novel.

Over the course of the evening, these two spark a complex personal connection in which sex appears to be the least problematic element. At the same time, they negotiate an intricate and dangerous relationship concerning their identities, their careers as writers, and their potential to help or to hurt one another.

Unfortunately what should be a wild and satisfying ride is tamed under Rob Ruggiero’s direction and, particularly, his miscasting of Olivia. Ruggiero usually does some of the best directing in this state and beyond, but his choice and guidance of Courtney Rackley misses crucial elements of Olivia’s character.

The actor playing Olivia must first convince us that she is, in fact, a passionate bookworm and writer: she must possess an unquestionable gravitas that Rackley, moving like a bird and speaking in a reedy voice, does not project. Olivia must also have sex appeal, made the more attractive by her obliviousness to it. Rackley lacks this ephemeral quality, and her costume, in the first act, doesn’t help: in every scene, she wears the same grayish camisole and striped pajama bottoms, and she often dons a hugely over-sized blue cardigan, which accentuates her exceedingly thin, physique. In it, she seems more child -- or model -- than woman.

Without sex appeal, there cannot be chemistry, and despite Patrick Ball’s timing, energy, and fitness (in all senses) for his role, nothing believably ignites between these two. Ball’s acting is terrific, but here, too, I wish that Ruggiero had allowed him to be at times less charming and more frightening. Olivia characterizes him as “dangerous,” and his authorial persona is named “Ethan Strange,” after all.┬áThat name should reverberate through the action.

The evening is a long one -- a bit over two hours -- and the pace could be sped up, not in the expertly paced scenes themselves, but during blackouts that go on a bit too long, despite Fitz Patton’s aptly mysterious sound design. The set, by Brian Prather, tells the story well; and after the first act, Amy Clark’s costumes are just right, as is John Lasiter’s lighting.

Though disappointing in some respects, TheaterWorks’ production is well worth seeing for Eason’s play. You will leave with plenty to think about and debate, and that experience is always welcome at the theater.

“Sex With Strangers” continues at TheaterWorks through April 17, 2016. For further information and ticket reservations call 860.527.7838 or visit: www.theaterworkshartford.org.

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