Sex with Strangers – Review by David Rosenberg

He likes e-books; she likes hardcovers. He’s a libertine; she’s a romantic. He’s self-confident; she’s insecure. But, despite these and other differences between the two characters in “Sex With Strangers” at Westport Country Playhouse, they forget their conflicts by apparently consummating the title deed. Laura Eason’s vacuous, occasionally amusing play thrives on coitus interruptus with most scenes ending in passionate foreplay and a quick blackout, during which, we assume, the earth moves.

Ethan and Olivia are both authors, he with a memoir that spent years on the N. Y. Times bestseller list, she with a failed novel. He’s sought her out, meeting, during a snowstorm, when he arrives at the Michigan bed and breakfast that doubles as a writer’s retreat. The B&B has neither internet nor cellphone reception, prompting Ethan to bemoan that people unable to reach him may think he died.

Ethan’s successful tome, also titled “Sex With Strangers,” salaciously chronicled his flings with a different woman each week for a year. He claims only pretending to be a “love ‘em and leave ‘em” guy, but that’s not who he really is.

Olivia, on the other hand, was so devastated by the negative reviews her first novel received that she hesitated writing another. But she is working on a sequel she doesn’t want anyone to read, yet. Ethan, however, sneaks a copy and tells her he finds it so brilliant he wants to publicize it via an app he’s developed to help new writers. The revelation is so exciting to this virginal, uptight woman that, aside from his physical attributes, she’s willing to be seduced.

Thus, the clash is not only between authors but generations, although the 30-ish Olivia is a scant ten years older than Ethan. Still, he’s a child of the digital age which relies on mechanical means to communicate. Carol is the Luddite. (“Isn’t there anything you wanted to keep private?” she asks.) He introduces her to his agent, promises to promote her writing and buys her an iPad which, to her, “smells like the future.”

Eason’s boy-meets-girl tale becomes a by-now-stale dispute between hooking up via social media or face-to-face. Googling someone before any entanglement is the new norm, as he has done. If only she googled him.

You almost hope that he’ll turn out to be a serial killer and she a streetwalker. But, no. This is a skin-deep “who cares” tale of writers trying to make a buck and achieve fame, he through new, she through old means. But the generational and lifestyle clash is inconsistent, superficially intriguing, unconvincingly contrived and ultimately just blah.

Under Katherine M. Carter’s workmanlike direction, Jessica Love is an appealing Olivia, introverted even when supposedly awakened to the joys of the flesh, becoming more self-assured, less self-conscious as the play progresses. As Ethan, the studly Chris Ghaffari seems to want to suggest layers that aren’t there. The actor is charming; the character is shallow.

The evening’s greatest assets are its scenery by Edward T. Morris, lighting by Alan Edwards and costumes by Caitlin Cisek whose designs support Olivia’s withdrawal from, and Ethan’s embrace of, the world. Now, what really does happen during those blackouts?

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