Sex as Matephor

By Geary Danihy

There’s no doubt about it -- sex sells. Yes, indeed. Stand outside TheaterWorks up in Hartford and stare up at the marquee. It’s surprising steam is rising off Emma Mead’s sensual photo of a woman embracing a man. And then there’s the play itself: Sex With Strangers. With a title like that, you just know you’re not going to see a re-staging of I Remember Mama.

As you walk down the stairs to the theater proper you may feel yourself starting to pant, and not because the stairs are steep. You sense you’re in for one of those evenings that require you be accompanied by an adult. Yes? Well, yes and no. The play’s title and marketing are pitching sex, and there are some steamy scenes in Laura Eason’s play, but Oh! Calcutta! it ain’t. The sex is the wrapping paper Eason has used to deliver an updated version of A Star is Born with just a touch of Educating Rita in this engaging two-person, two-act dramedy that, once we get through the sex, is about the state of the publishing business, the incursion of electronic media into same, writers’ insecurity and the awkwardness inherent in a May-September romance.

Briskly directed by Rob Ruggiero, with some deft set designs by Brian Prather, Sex With Strangers opens with Olivia (Courtney Rackley) nested in an isolated bed and breakfast in Michigan during a blizzard. A teacher and unfulfilled writer, she has come to this sanctuary (she is the only guest) to work on her novel. The sound of an automobile interrupts her editing. Who could it be? Well, it’s Ethan (Patrick Ball), who bursts on the scene with an energy and brusqueness that immediately destroys Olivia’s insular tranquility.

What follows is a set-up that is a bit strained, for Ethan is a blogger turned author with two best-sellers under his belt, both detailing his sexual exploits that, in the process, demean women. Olivia bristles, but at the end of the first scene they are in each other’s arms for the first of several fade-outs that allow the audience to imagine explicit sexual activity. Here’s where you have to suspend your disbelief, for it’s difficult to accept that Olivia, an erudite and self-possessed woman, would succumb so easily to Ethan’s sexual magnetism, which basically consists of “Do you wanna do it?” lines and moves. Buy the foreplay, such as it is, buy the rest of the play.

Yes, most of the scenes in the first act end with the couple coupling on various pieces of furniture, but the sexual interaction quickly becomes secondary to the issues Eason really wants to deal with. The basic conflict is not between male and female, although there is certainly a lot of dialogue dealing with the two genders’ ids and egos, but rather between an insecure author who revels in the smell and feel of a book (Olivia) and a successful author (Ethan) who is comfortable in the world of E-books and apps.

Over the course of the first act, Ethan seduces Olivia in several ways-- yes, she willingly succumbs to his sexual overtures but she is more hesitant about his suggestions that she enter and embrace the 21st-century’s somewhat fractionated publishing world. She finally agrees to have her first book, which received mixed reviews and enjoyed limited sales when first published, be rejuvenated in electronic form.

Oddly enough, much of the heat generated by Sex With Strangers (also the title of Ethan’s first book) has little to do with the two characters’ sexual passions but rather with their confrontations over ethics and the nature of a writer’s relationship to his or her work. In either case, Rackley and Ball handle the multiple mating dances with a great deal of style and flair. Both actors, under Ruggiero’s tutelage, know how to deliver a laugh line, and when their characters are in full-tilt confrontation they bite into each other’s lines like two predators vying to see who will dominate and devour the prey.

Sex With Strangers could easily have been titled Naked, a word that could be interpreted in several ways. Yes, sexual relations are primarily carried out when the participants involved are naked, but Eason is also dealing with the loss of privacy that comes as a concomitant to immersion in the world of texts, twitters and blogs, which often leads to a redefining of the word “rape.” Eason asks the audience to consider what someone must give up when he or she enters the somewhat anarchic world of the Internet. What is real? What is manufactured? As we cede more of who we are to whom we appear to be when we are “Googled,” does the person become the electronic persona? In essence, is fame and fortune, as determined and dictated by the Internet, a Mephistophelean bargain?

Yes, Sex with Strangers is being promoted with SEX all in caps. That might be a wise or foolhardy decision. Those hoping simply to ogle naked bodies will be disappointed, but those who wish to be engaged by ideas that demand we assess what we have lost and what we have gained as the electronic media has become ascendant will be more than satisfied. In essence, the play is really not about SEX, it’s about SOUL.

Sex With Strangers runs through April 17. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org

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