Sunday, 30 January 2011 19:08

Tangled Web - Sex with Strangers returns to Steppenwolf Theatre Featured

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Sex still sells. Playwright Laura Eason realized this firsthand when, in an admittedly calculated move to get a play produced, she concocted a simple two-character piece with an eye-catching, but slightly deceptive title. First staged in the summer of 2009 as part of Steppenwolf Theatre’s First Look Repertory of New Work, a revised “Sex with Strangers” returns to Chicago to reignite debates about public/private selves and communication in an era now dominated by online social networking.

Don’t let the title fool you: at the risk of generalizing, the play has a strong feminine sensibility that lends depth to a fairly formulaic conceit. In addition to Eason’s astute, yet warm writing, the play is directed by Jessica Thebus (a longtime friend of Eason’s) with an intimate, romantic (not erotic) charge; sexy, but not incendiary. The characters share an almost instant chemistry, though it is one fueled more by a shared love of words and professional envy than the purely visceral dynamic one might expect going in.

Olivia is an almost-40 novelist grappling with a paralyzing sense of failure (her first book was met with commercial and critical indifference). When we first meet her, she is holed up in a remote cabin in snowy Michigan completing a follow-up she has no intention of sharing with the world. Into this sad, yet artistically romantic scenario bursts Ethan, a cocky, self-made 24 year old rolling in the success of his blog-turned-bestselling book and soon-to-be movie “Sex with Strangers,” which chronicles his misogynistic “sexcapades” ala Tucker Max. Olivia is instantly fascinated/repulsed by Ethan’s success and the various ramifications of the blogosphere. In turn, Ethan has read Olivia’s “failed” novel, greatly respects her work, and aspires to a similar artistic depth. Of course, opposites attract. It is a pretty simple premise (almost sitcom-y in another context), but one that is mined for interesting questions regarding different generational views on identity and privacy, cyberspace as a liberating/debilitating frontier, and the role financial success (and the lack of) plays in relationships.

What this play is not about, however, is sex. The title is a commercial hook, not a preview of things to come. Yes, Ethan blogs about sexual conquests and the two characters share a palpable physical chemistry, but “Sex with Strangers” unfolds more like a brainy rom-com than titillating drama. The dialogue is sharp and crisp with both leads trading fun, incisive banter. Ensemble member Sally Murphy infuses what could have been a sad sack character with a nice mix of openness and vulnerability. Her Olivia has the battle scars of experience with the fleeting remnants of youthful idealism. And as Ethan, a returning Stephen Louis Grush (reprising the role from 2009) takes the stage with such roguish charm, you can almost see why Olivia would overlook the more immature, scumbag qualities. You believe in the pairing, despite the age and philosophical differences.

The staging of the two act play is sparse (yet nicely detailed), so most of the production rests on Eason’s writing and the leads. Kudos to Thebus for keeping the pace brisk (each act speeds by). And despite some of the more formulaic trappings of the story - and the by now played out do-it-yourself ending in vogue since “Lost in Translation” - the overall narrative arc is engaging throughout (one suspects a lot of autobiographical projection by Eason in Olivia’s career woes). Breezy enough to entertain, but sharp enough to provoke thought about the age we live in (and the ever-shifting public and private domains), “Sex with Strangers” might one day become yet another model of life imitating art: as with Ethan’s fictitious book-turned-movie, don’t be surprised to find Eason’s play dumbed down to a multiplex vehicle for Jennifer Aniston or Julia Roberts. Just remember you read it here first.

Running through May 15 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For more information: 312-335-1650 or


Last modified on Monday, 31 January 2011 17:38



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