If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
Intriguing “Sex With Strangers” in Hartford
Its provocative title notwithstanding, Laura Eason’s off-Broadway hit “Sex With Strangers” has more on its mind than its rather lurid moniker would suggest. The playwright’s critically acclaimed new play about contemporary writers and finding love in the age of the Internet is making its Connecticut premiere at TheaterWorks in Hartford.
Fledgling novelist Olivia (Courtney Rackley) is snuggling under a blanket on an overstuffed sofa at a secluded Michigan bed and breakfast during a blizzard. Her peace is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of hunky Ethan (Patrick Ball) with plans of his own to crash at the B&B for a few nights of solitude. Small talk leads to the realization that Ethan is a big fan of Olivia’s one novel which had promise but few sales. Olivia has just finished a new book but is gun-shy showing it to anyone, especially this young man, ten years her junior, who, she soon learns, has spent a year having weekly sex with strangers and blogged about it. The blog has paid off, apparently, giving him a million followers on the Internet, bestselling books and an upcoming movie deal.
“Sex With Strangers” doesn’t shy away from its suggestive title but it also delves deep into the age of the Internet where a whole generation has basically defined itself by its Facebook status and latest Instagram posts. The gulf between Ethan and Olivia is not only an age difference but one of communication. Ethan thinks he knows everything about Olivia because he’s read about her online whereas Olivia is attempting to learn about Ethan the old-fashioned way. By talking. The role the Internet plays in the publishing world is also addressed here and Olivia’s fear of having “nothing to put on the shelf any more” is a point of real contention between the couple.
Any production of “Sex With Strangers” must rise or fall on the chemistry of its two actors and, at TheaterWorks, this becomes an issue. Ball and Rackley have no problem with the physical aspects of their characters and director Rob Ruggiero has staged their various couplings with great variety and enthusiasm. But Rackley, looking nearly the same age as Ball, is far too winsome, vocally shrill and “young” in action to suggest the older author. Simply put, she is more cheerleader than cougar and without the crucial contrast between them, the relationship is thrown off-balance. Ball is very comfortable strutting in his black underwear, but is less convincing when called upon to debate his May/December romance or discuss the current state of publishing. Little he says seems genuine or comfortable coming out of his mouth, resulting in a connection that rarely seems believable.
Set Designer Brian Prather has done admirable work with two distinct settings here: the comfy, lived-in bed and breakfast as well as Olivia’s sleek, book-lined Chicago apartment. Amy Clark’s costuming does well with Rackley who clearly can wear anything, but I was distracted by the high-on-the-ankle cuffed jeans selected for Ball and worn by him throughout most of the play. John Lasiter’s lighting evokes a nice romantic sheen while Fitz Patton’s sound design pulsates with a contemporary beat. I did find, however, that the several blackouts between scenes were inordinately long given the minor costume and set changes that seemed to occur each time.
Eason has written a solid and compelling drama about the way we live now, but it is not always seen to its best advantage in Hartford. “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.
Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.