In 1956, Frankie Lyman & the Teenagers hit the Billboard charts with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” Laura Eason presents the same question in Sex With Strangers, albeit she’s substituting writers for fools (or perhaps she isn’t). This two-hander that recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse basically throws together two people of antithetical personalities and then observes what happens (well, you know what’s going to happen – it’s the bread and butter of many a romantic comedy). Toss in a lot of info about the publishing world and our modern, wired (perhaps over-wired and thus alienated) society, plus a critique of the Millennial dating scene, shake and bake, and what you still have is the story of a relationship, romantic and otherwise, which means if you are to be drawn in you have to care about this couple, care what happens to them and, by and large, you do.
Deftly directed by Katherine M. Carter, who has a superb eye for blocking that emphasizes and enhances what’s going on in the script, the success of Sex With Strangers rises or falls on its cast, for you’re going to spend close to two hours with the characters they bring to life, so there better be more than a bit of chemistry – and there is.
The first act finds Olivia (a superb Jessica Love) ensconced in a bed and breakfast in upstate Michigan in the midst of a snowstorm. She’s basically got the place to herself until headlights flash, a car grinds to a halt and Ethan (Chris Ghaffari – recently seen as Romeo in Hartford Stage’s Romeo and Juliet) bursts on the scene. She’s a teacher who’s come to this hideaway to work on her novel; he’s – well, a snowbound B & B is not exactly his scene, but we learn that he’s traveled north to meet her. Their initial confrontation has all the elements of a wolf stumbling upon a rabbit (kudos to Love for body language that conveys, more than the dialogue, exactly how uncomfortable her character is with Ethan’s encroachment), but given that there’s a blizzard they accept they are stuck with each other and must interact.
Ethan knows (through a mutual acquaintance) that Olivia is a writer; Olivia knows nothing about this brash young man but soon comes to learn that, under his nom de blog of Ethan Strange, he is the author of two best-sellers, the first being Sex With Strangers, an outgrowth of his blog that chronicles his multiple sexual exploits and gleeful denigration of women. She is not thrilled; he could care less.
What transpires is the expected emotional pas de deux plus a witty weighing of the values of the old versus new publishing world, with Ethan slowly enticing Olivia into considering a venture onto the Internet with her work. What also transpires, and here some audience members may have to suspend their disbelief a bit, is that Olivia and Ethan take more advantage of the bed than any possibility of breakfast. Given the “Ethan Strange” reputation, and his age, you might just wonder why Olivia so quickly falls into his arms. Yes, she’s had some wine, but…well, if you buy into this, then the rest of the play is engaging and, in the second act confrontation, even gripping.
There’s a certain echo of A Star is Born in the play, for Olivia’s rise will, to a certain extent, be contingent upon Ethan’s fall after he has taken her under his wing. There is also the intriguing question – left unanswered – of who has actually been using whom in this dance of authorial egos. What’s most intriguing about the play is the transformation (or the attempt at transformation) the two characters undergo as they interact with each other on two sets designed by Edward T. Morris that also go through a pronounced transformation.
Love deftly gives us an uptight Olivia, unwilling to roll the authorial dice and face criticism, who is transformed (accented by the costume given her by Caitlin Cisek in the final scene) into a mature, confident woman, albeit one who is unsure of the price she has paid for the transformation. Ghaffari’s Ethan, brash and confident at the start of the play, is on the cusp of change by its conclusion, though Cisek’s costuming for him suggests that the change may not be consummated. The actor does a nuanced job of portraying a man whose success has been contingent on the selling of his soul, a contract with the devil he tries to void.
As with all well-written plays, there’s a lot to mull over about Sex With Strangers once the curtain has fallen. Eason asks us to ponder the impact of the Internet on the lives of those who have known no other world and the attendant slow demise of privacy. What does it mean that we can learn “everything” about someone before we ever meet them and yet know really nothing about them? What consequences ensue when we all play roles on an electronic stage, roles that, unlike those of actors, we cannot walk away from?
Sex With Strangers runs through October 14. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.