Two writers meet at a writer’s retreat in Michigan during a blizzard. She—Olivia (Jessica Love)—is a fortyish novelist whose first novel was mismanaged and sank without a trace. He—Ethan (Chris Ghaffari)—is an internet sensation who has parlayed his blog documenting his record-setting sexual exploits into a New York Times best-seller. We expect some version of the tried and true mixing of oil and water to reach romance. What we get is a talky and unintriguing series of exchanges between two characters who are stuck with each other in Laura Eason’s vapid take on passion and publishing in the internet age in Westport Country Playhouse’s revival of her provocatively titled Sex with Strangers, directed by Katherine M. Carter.
At first, Olivia is wary and distant. Ethan barges in on her after she’s become certain no other guest will be joining her. Turns out he has read her only novel, given to him by a mutual friend, and he adores it. The broken ice melts swiftly and the two repeat often the show’s only gag—they begin pawing each other, removing their clothes, and we go to blackout.
It may be amusing that Olivia is so eager for a little loving that she’ll bed a guy who admits he’s an asshole and has told her he writes, in self-serving detail, about every one of the sex-mates he’s had. Ghaffari plays Ethan as a charmer, with a bod to be proud of, and, though he doesn’t know who Marguerite Duras—Olivia’s favorite writer—is, he’s able to sling advertising copy at her book and other works that got through to him. Olivia, though, is old enough to know better, so if she accepts him as sincere when he promises he won’t write about her, well, we suppose she knows what she’s doing.
The main question is: do we care? After the characters were introduced, during which time Olivia’s spikey crust turned soft dough, I had a sinking sensation realizing that, no matter how long this play goes on, no one else is going to come through the door. We get only Olivia and Ethan, and they’re pretty tedious company, and, strangely, not sexy. Director Carter’s approach to the material can be best described as workmanlike. The blocking uses the sets well.
The selling point that this play addresses the difficulty of remaining private in the public world of online self-advertisement seems wishful thinking. Ethan tells Olivia all about who he is, she doesn’t even have to google him. And he knows who she is before he meets her because she’s actually a published author he has read as prep to sweep her off her feet. The play dates from 2011 and the more a work tries to stay on top of the “now” of the internet it risks looking foolish. Ethan, back then, was immediately recognizable as an analogue to that “hope they serve beer in hell” dude. Remember him?
What it all comes down to is that Ethan wants to be Olivia’s internet-savvy hero, able to resuscitate the heat in her stalled career through his new book-hawking app, while Olivia is more excited about the prospect of using his agent to get a shot at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, aka FSG. You may wonder if Ethan can be trusted. You may want to see who is using whom more or better. Almost any plot you think you see coming at the close of Act I is bound to be better than what actually does ensue.
Could this play work better with snappier delivery, more chemistry between the two actors, and a surer grasp of pacing? Doubtless, but I’m not convinced any of those factors would offset what is mostly pretentious and interminable dialogue sparked by an occasional laugh. The characters are made to discuss books we likely haven’t read—because only the ones by Duras and Tolstoy exist. Much is made of the celebrity that surrounds Ethan’s “Sex with Strangers” blog and book—which is being made into a movie—but Olivia, like the most naïve of ingenues, wants to believe that such callous events as Ethan narrates are all in the past or were only invented for sensationalism. Love plays Olivia as the sensitive type, ready to swoon if a cute guy takes an interest or if an anonymous Amazon reviewer gives her a thumbs up. All the while, Eason seems to want us to believe that Ethan isn’t really the cad he’s cracked up to be, but is, in fact, a prospective “brilliant” novelist trying to overcome the problem that he’s become rich and infamous instead of serious and respected. It could happen to anyone.
Edward T. Morris’ set for the bed and breakfast looks like a combination of a lodge and college common room, a look entirely appropriate for the collegiate ideas about hooking-up and producing copy that engage these two. In Act Two, the set is converted into a swanky-ish apartment—that circular staircase and the wall of shelves are no doubt desired features—where Olivia, now on her way to the big time, has traded in her dumpy Dell for a sleek Mac, and faces the wounded pride of her paramour. Stay through intermission to see the set change, it’s one of the more interesting features of the show.
There may be some effort on the part of Eason and Carter to saddle these romantic antagonists with emotions beyond lust, pride, and thirst for fame, but not much else has a chance to register. Serious writers, I expect, know that proper names and adjectives don’t help much in expressing ideas. That’s left to blurb writers. For the likes of Olivia and Ethan, online gossip, name-dropping, blog-crit, and jacket copy are the tools of the trade and the best that can be hoped for. That may well be true to life, these days, but Eason hasn’t any idea how to satirize or complicate that state of affairs for the sake of her characters, or of her viewers.
Thanks, but no thanks, in times like these, the griefs of shallow egos aren’t enough. For diversion, I’d rather fire up a Tracy-Hepburn flick.
Sex with Strangers
By Laura Eason
Directed by Katherine M. Carter
Scenic Design: Edward T. Morris; Costume Design: Caitlin Cisek; Lighting Design: Alan Edwards; Sound Design: Beth Lake; Props Master: Karin White; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting; Production Stage Manager: Garrett Rollins; Assistant Stage Manager: Alice M. Pollitt
Cast: Chris Ghaffari, Jessica Love
Westport Country Playhouse
September 26-October 14, 2017
This post originally appeared in the New Haven Review on October 4, 2017 and has been reposted with permission.