Are writers assholes, using the lives of those they touch for their selfish artistic ends? Do writers aim only for the acclaim and recognition of literary success, with the artistic merits of their work a secondary consideration? What will success look like anyway, given the current state of print publishing? To what extent should we judge a writer’s person by his/her literary persona? (And a corollary: to what extent should we judge a person by his/her past?)
Laura Eason’s SEX WITH STRANGERS raises some interesting questions about love and art. But at least in David Saint’s direction for Philadelphia Theatre Company, the play is largely uninterested in exploring them.
On a blizzardy night in rural Michigan, two writers—cocky millennial Ethan Kane (Kyle Coffman) (“I can’t get online, people are gonna think I’m dead”) and half-failed late-thirties novelist Olivia Lago (Joanna Rhinehart)—share a rented cabin. (A too neat set by Jason Simms deliciously lit by Christopher J. Bailey.) Olivia toils as a writing teacher in the wake of a indifferently reviewed, quickly forgotten first novel. Ethan’s book, adapted from his blog about a year of 100 sexual encounters (“sex with strangers”), has taken him to the top of the NY Times bestseller list.
Ethan is desperate to be taken seriously for his writing so far limited to a Hollywood-ready tale of somewhat fictionalized, morally questionable sexual exploits (leaving a drunk woman on the side of the road, for example). Eason’s play half addresses Ethan’s red pill misogyny, but he’s presented more as a potential lover with a complicated past than a rapey scoundrel somewhere on a continuum comprising Neil Strauss and Bill Cosby.
This isn’t the play’s only missed opportunity. There’s a fair amount of literary name-dropping in their conversation, but Olivia and Ethan seem more concerned with what makes a book successful than what makes a book good. It’s hard to picture either as particularly interesting writers—”more steel production figures than ‘Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?’” as Philip Larkin once put it. (And with that line, this review now contains more literary-minded discussion than the entire two acts of SEX WITH STRANGERS.)
Indeed, in Saint’s hands, it’s hard to picture Ethan and Olivia as anything but larger-than-life characters in a play. There’s wit and intelligence to Eason’s script which this production mostly overplays or else overlooks. Especially in the first act, which inevitably culminates in “sex with strangers”, Coffman and Rhinehart’s interactions lack the subtlety and depth which might encourage us to invest any concern in their characters.
The overplayed theatricality works better in the heightened tension of the second act, which sees a reversal in the characters’ fortunes in the emotionally complicated wake of their tryst. But by the time we get to a classic “the lady, or the tiger” ending-choice (will she/won’t she?), we’ve long-since turned the page and closed the book of our concern.
[Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad Street] April 8-May 8, 2016; philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.