Fort Worth — It’s not hard to understand why Laura Eason’s complex, provocative Sex with Strangers has been one of the top ten regional productions since its New York debut in 2014. Not only does it have an intriguing title and minimal cast, the script crackles with energy and bristles with timely questions about love and identity, anonymity and overexposure in the digital age.
In Stage West’s regional debut, the actors share a tense, snappy chemistry, engaging and withdrawing as the relationship between the two writers sparks and deepens. Under the skilled direction of longtime Stage West associate Jim Covault, Dana Schultes turns in an excellent, restrained performance as Olivia Lago, a not-quite-forty-something writer who isn’t so much a has-been as a never-was. Her first novel failed due primarily to a misleading cover—the metaphor of “judging a book by its cover” is appropriate, if not the most subtle—and that failure left Olivia too wounded to be willing to subject herself or her new book to public scrutiny. Enter Ethan Kane (Jake Buchanan in an interestingly opaque performance), a late twentysomething blogger who, despite the financial success of his blog-turned-novel “Sex With Strangers” (followed, naturally, by the equally best-selling “More Sex With Strangers”) about his year-long quest to bed a different girl every week, yearns for literary legitimacy. The two meet at a Michigan B&B with a reputation as the perfect retreat for struggling writers: Olivia, to work on the draft of her latest novel, and Ethan, seemingly to finish his notes on the screenplay based on his book (based on his blog), though his real motivation is gradually revealed as more complicated.
Buchanan does an excellent job of developing real layers to Ethan, a character who, initially, seems like a particularly aggressive specimen of KALE-sweatshirt wearing millennial bro-hood. As he enters Olivia’s Michigan sanctuary, he dominates her space—dumps his bags on the floor, takes off his shoes, demands food from the shared kitchen, and lacks a basic sense of restroom etiquette. Just as Olivia’s dislike for Ethan—along with the audience’s—begins to crystallize, he queries, “Am I seeming like a dick right now?” and we are disarmed. Though the question remains—should we be? Has Ethan sought out Olivia because he admires her work, or does he have more mercenary motivations?
Schultes’ body language, in conjunction with her costuming (by Ryan D. Schaap), captures Olivia’s reticence and her gradual thaw—tightly closed cardigans and crossed arms gradually melt into amusement and attraction as Ethan pushes her buttons and, finally, appeals to her ego. What writer could resist a potential lover who can quote her work at will? But a vague uneasiness remains. What does Ethan really want? The scenario has a hint of horror movie to it—isolated cabin, snowed in, unexpected visitors, no Internet access. This last fact is met with disbelief by the always plugged-in Ethan, in a nice bit of millennial side-eyeing, though he does get his own back later when Olivia hears his claims to be a New York Times best-selling author with disbelief: “Don’t you wish you could look it up?” This uneasiness persists as the two get closer, and as Ethan flatters Olivia’s ego and pushes her to put herself and her work back into the public eye, and as the first act closes, we’re left to wonder whether the two really know each other at all.
We follow Olivia and Ethan from Michigan to Chicago, where they try to make their unlikely relationship work amidst shifts in power dynamics, as Olivia’s career begins to take off and Ethan’s stalls, both parties’ increased digital presence, and betrayals both personal and professional. It’s in the second act that Buchanan really shines. Although it appears that Ethan himself doesn’t entirely know why he wants to be with Olivia—professional admiration? Mommy issues? A stepping stone into legitimacy? Real love?—by the end, with all pretenses cast aside, their emotional connection is real, painfully so by the time the two part. The play exits with unanswered questions, leaving the audience in the same position as the characters: uncertain, but hopeful.
Kevin Brown’s set design is excellent, from the wood-paneled Michigan B&B full of second-hand furniture and Hudson Valley school knockoff paintings, to Olivia’s sleeker, blues-and-creams apartment in Chicago, while the well-conceived costuming plays a large part in establishing the characters. Olivia’s neutral cardigans and sweatpants give way to more sophisticated fare, culminating in a knockout dress by the final scene, while Ethan’s ripped jeans and hipster sweatshirts are as aggressively “cool” as the put-on persona he dons as his blogger alter-ego “Ethan Strange” of the weekly sexcapades. The music interludes between scene changes are somewhat generically “sexy,” but not jarringly so.
All in all, this production is an excellent melding of a sharp script, accomplished direction, and a talented cast. You may leave with questions—and so you should— but you definitely won’t leave unsatisfied.