review: Sex with Strangers

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Sex with Strangers

by Laura Eason
Directed by David Saint
Featuring Kyle Coffman, Joanna Rhinehart
Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre
April 8, 2016 – May 8, 2016 

production site

[This is the fifth of five reviews for shows viewed in Philadelphia during the April 2016 annual meeting of the American Theatre Critics Association.]

(L-R) Joanna Rhinehart, Kyle Coffman. Image by T. Charles Erikson.
(L-R) JoAnna Rhinehart, Kyle Coffman. Image by T. Charles Erickson.

The Philadelphia Theatre Company has teamed up with New Brunswick’s George Street Playhouse to present playwright Sex with StrangersLaura Eason‘s exploration of inter-generational romance (female 30-something meets male 20-something) and publishing (traditional paper meets e-publishing) and communication (everything internet, changing minute by minute). The play is not brand new — it was part of a reading series at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2009 (where I first encountered it), received a full production there in 2011, and has received regional U.S. and international productions in the intervening years, including a 2014 Off Broadway run at Second Stage where I saw it again. The plot line includes a bit of mystery but is largely expositional. Major plot developments occur off stage, and what we see on stage is the result of the two character’s reactions to those actions. This puts huge responsibility in Eason’s tautly-crafted dramatic duel on the sexual chemistry between the two performers embodying the play’s two characters. And in this case, in this production, that chemistry falls short, setting the story balance off kilter.

Olivia (JoAnna Rhinhart) is a woman in early middle age working on a new writing project at a bed and breakfast in western Michigan. Ethan (Kyle Coffman), a young writer with a hot blog of his frequent sexual adventures, enters the temporarily un-hosted bed with a secret: he has tracked Olivia to this remote cabin because he knows her writing from her first published book. A dance ensues: he pursues, she rebuffs, she relents, they have a weekend fling then stay connected back home in Chicago. Sex turns into dating, dating turns into career advice and perhaps interference. Ethan pushes Olivia faster than she wants to be pushed into e-publishing and we are left to wonder: who is running the show here?

In some productions, that dance between the characters can have an undercurrent of mistrust, and danger (which does in fact infuse what Eason has written), whereas in this production that dance is largely humorous. A stranger emerges suddenly in the Michigan remote wilderness where a woman is alone, the venue “host” is away and it’s snowy winter. In this set up, the playwright begins her exploration of important and nuanced questions. What happens when online and real life identities come together? What are Ethan’s motivations? What are Olivia’s motivations? Whose story dominates here? In the play’s second act, where the action moves from the remote cabin to a Chicago apartment (a transition neatly achieved with a turntable flip in the set design by Jason Simms), the dramatic action moves from trusting emotions to trust (or violation of trust) related to access to digital manuscripts.

Sex with Strangers is among the scores of plays being written with the internet and electronic communications playing a key role (from the frequently produced The Nether that just concluded a run at InterAct Theatre to Water by the Spoonful seen in Philadelphia at the Arden in 2014). In Sex with Strangers, the electronic dimensions of the plot line are focused on the instant nature of sharing and publishing, and the new world of publication independent of traditional publishers — there are no moments of electronics dramatically portrayed, such as typing and projection of instant messages or email exchanges. The digital tools used to betray trust are just tools; the violation could have occurred by burning a manuscript or simply handing a document over in person. The Sex with Strangers plot hooks are in fact a bit dated in our swiftly evolving digital world — the idea of a Luddite writer without a digital presence has become in the past seven years hopelessly romantic and a shard of a plot point on which to hang the drama of most of the play. Again, we’re led back to the essential chemistry between the two performers embodying the play’s two characters. And here, the tone of the direction and the human connection between the characters come up short.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 20, 2016)

Playwright | Laura Eason
Director | David Saint
Set Design | Jason Simms
Costume Design | Michael McDonald
Lighting Design | Christopher J. Bailey
Sound Design + Original Music | Scott Killian
PTC Dramaturg | Carrie Chapter

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