The setup is almost too cliché to take seriously: put together a reclusive writer (whose one opus never garnered commercial success) with a younger writer of extremely popular fluff; listen to them spout self-absorbed literary existentialist nonsense; and watch them inevitably end up together in bed. This isn’t a play, it’s a trope. Its clickbait title, its endless namechecking (Smashwords? Jeffrey Eugenides?), and its overall lack of subtlety have one wondering if there isn’t in fact a joke here—and it’s on the audience.
So I have to start by saying this: it’s a massive tribute to the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater that its production of Sex With Strangers is able to rise above the wild inconsistencies and impoverished worldview of the script and present something worth seeing.
Despite its title, this play has little to do with sex. Instead, it’s about a lot of other things: it’s about power, and it’s about identity, and it’s about aspirations. Playwright Laura Eason isn’t big on subtleties: the world she presents is strictly binary. Men behave like jerks and women behave like frightened rabbits. Writers are either shallow, rich, and hugely popular, or talented, poor, and toiling in obscurity. One is either obsessively digitally connected (to the tune of thousands of hits on a blog) or unable to keep up with the digital revolution, left alone by the literary wayside, drinking wine by the fire.
And it is about gender as well, in Eason’s seriously unfortunate choice of—oh, let’s see, cliché alert, a sexually promiscuous brash young male with literary pretensions playing house with an innocent rejected insecure talented female novelist. In the opening scene, Ethan has clearly been stalking Olivia (and there isn’t anything wrong with this?); they end up alone in a snowstorm in the same isolated B&B; after a few hours together he ravishes her and off to the bedroom they go. Remind me: what century are we in?
The plot twists—and there are several—depend heavily on great direction and great acting in order to work; they teeter constantly on the edge of melodrama. As the power is passed back and forth between the two characters, actors Nichole Hamilton and John Kovach pull humanity out of caricature and somehow enable the audience to care about what’s going on.
“It smells like the future,” muses Olivia, sniffing her new iPad. (Wait—did she actually say that? You’re kidding, right?) Fortunately, Hamilton is able to carry off lines like that one (and there are many) by absorbing them into her character, making the remarks self-deprecating rather than ingenious. Kovach has more challenges: he has to make us believe that Ethan—who has apparently stepped off the cover of a Harlequin romance and is proving it by taking off his shirt at every possible opportunity—is actually trying to become a serious writer. And although Ethan’s behavior strays into the abusive (he not only violates Olivia’s space but violates her trust by stealing and reading her manuscript), Kovach manages to resurrect his humanity as the play progresses, showing flashes of insecurity that are real rather than bombastic and touching rather than irritating.
Both actors were clearly faced with substantial choices throughout the play; they’re allowing their characters to explore a range of feelings about success and failure and how one’s sense of self-worth is affected and do it despite the unfortunate lines through which they must convey it all.
While it’s a mystery to me why anyone would wish to produce this play, director Jeffry George manages to tease out the comedic moments and avoid the worst of the clichés, and that alone elevates him to the brilliant category.
If subtlety is missing in the script, it’s present in the staging. Michael Steers has outdone himself here, especially in the north-country B&B where the play opens. He’s followed Eason’s binary requirements by contrasting its coziness with a modern, sterile Chicago condo; but his real genius is in atmosphere. The quiet shimmering snow, barely perceptible, falling outside the window. The braided rug and the plaid sofa in the B&B. The glass-and-chrome fittings of the modern Chicago condominium, cold beyond belief. It’s as though Eason said, “the world is black and white, show me the two extremes” and Steers responded, but with his own subtle twists.
None of the “revelations” about changes and shakeouts in the publishing industry should have been news to anybody in 2017. Perhaps that’s why it was so easy to look past them and see where Eason had the opportunity here to make something real, to decide what her goal was and go for it, and instead decided to cop out with a cheap “insider” look at what’s in fact a layered and complex literary scene.
The play is a mess. The production, actors, and director did their best, and should be honored for it. Sex With Strangers is ultimately anything but strange: it’s a rehash of a story that’s older than any of us, and not a very good one at that.
Sex with Strangers is playing at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater through June 10th; Thurs-Sat at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. Photos by Michael and Sue Karchmer.