Sex with Strangers – Review by Tom Holehan

“Sex With Strangers” Simmers at Westport Playhouse

With four out of five plays now produced for its 2017 season, the Westport Playhouse has finally delivered with a well directed and acted rendering of Laura Eason’s off-Broadway hit, “Sex With Strangers”. After what has been a somewhat uneven season for the Playhouse, this moving and funny two-character play about a pair of writers finding love in the age of the Internet is on solid footing and very entertaining.

Fledgling novelist Olivia (Jessica Love) is snuggling under a blanket at a secluded Michigan bed and breakfast during a blizzard when her peace is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of hunky Ethan (Chris Ghaffari) with plans of his own to crash there for a few days. Small talk and several glasses of wine later, we learn 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 informs her that he 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”, its salacious title notwithstanding, is about much more than casual sex. It has timely matters on its mind as it delves deep into the world of the Internet where a whole generation has basically defined itself by its Facebook status, latest tweet or current Instagram photo. When Ethan discovers the WIFI service is down at the cabin his first reaction is, “I can’t get online? People will think I’m dead!” As Ethan and Olivia stumble into an affair, their age difference isn’t the only conflict as issues of online ethics and perceptions about the way we live now are debated. Playwright Eason has tapped very much into the millennial zeitgeist while bringing both humor and pathos to Ethan’s relationship with the older woman.

The WCP production has plenty going for it first and foremost with its crucial casting of Ethan and Olivia. If the two actors cast don’t have chemistry with each other, the play simply doesn’t work. This is thankfully not a problem in Westport as Love plays a smart cougar exuding both warmth and vulnerability and Ghaffari, who was very comfortable in and out of his clothes in WCP’s production of “What the Butler Saw” last season, brings youthful charisma and boyish enthusiasm to a role that could be very unlikable in less capable hands. This is a sexy, winning couple that you really root for throughout the play.

Director Katherine M. Carter’s design team couldn’t be better here with Edward T. Morris providing two sets that are as detailed and authentic as they come. The upscale Adirondack-style bed and breakfast includes a cozy loft and fine furnishings and then rotates to become Oivia’s stylish, book-lined Chicago apartment. You might wonder how a struggling author affords such trendy digs, but enjoy the view anyway. The contemporary costuming by Caitlin Cisek is absolutely right for both actors and kudos to the numerous quick changes that occur during the two-hour running time. Alan Edwards’ lighting and Beth Lake’s sound design also register. Good news all around, “Sex With Strangers” is a whole lot more than its provocative title would begin to suggest.

“Sex With Strangers” continues at the Westport Playhouse through October 14. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org

Tom Holehan is one of the 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: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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